To some it's a sub, to others a hoagie or hero. But in Toronto's many inner-city Vietnamese hubs, it's known as banh mi, the cross-cultural sandwich that's certainly downtown's cheapest lunch. For less than a deuce, these cold cut combos deliver T.O.'s biggest culinary bang for the buck.
Banh mi first appeared in Vietnam when the colonial French introduced locals to crusty baguettes, mayonnaise and butter. Street vendors added Asian-spiced processed pork, fresh coriander, daikon, carrot and a depth charge of chilies to create the swellest of sandwiches. By the 90s, banh mi had made their way to Dundas and Spadina and have since spread across the city. Taking our cue from Mr. Submarine, we've come to call them Saigon subs.
Surely, they're all the same. I mean, what do you expect for a buck (taxes often included)? But like any creative form - curling or line dancing, say - there are a few who do banh mi best, leaving the unfortunate rest behind.
I've enlisted the cast-iron stomach of the Troubled Balkan (the poor boy downed 19 of the explosive po' boys in a 24-hour period with nary a belch) to determine who makes Toronto's best banh mi. Here are our fiery findings.
All prices include tax, except where indicated.
ROSE CAFÉ (324 Broadview, at Gerrard East, 416-406-9906). Price: $1.50 . Rating: NNNNN
located in the prettiest building in Riverdale's Chinatown East, Rose Café gets everything right, from friendly counter service to made-to-order banh mi with the freshest ingredients. Recalling tuna salad, Ga Cha Bong finds shreds of cured chicken wrapped in a flaky-crusted, pillowy-centred French bun spread with butter and sweet mayo and layered with lengthwise slices of English cuke and thick strands of sweetly pickled daikon and carrot. A toss of finely minced Thai bird chilies injects slow-building heat. The vegetarian version, Banh Mi Chay, comes beefed-up with dense tofu and chewy Chinese 'shrooms.
co yen (334 Spadina, at Dundas West, 416-597-1573). Price: $1 to $1.50 (taxes not included) Rating: NNNNN
though its recent renovation has erased much of its offbeat charm (bring back the clocks telling the wrong time in Paris and Saigon!), Co Yen holds onto its title of best sub shop on the west side. One of four sub shops cheek-by-jowl on the avenue - appropriate considering the amount of pork by-products used - Co Yen makes the hard-to-find honeyed chicken sub, all sugary thigh meat, crisp veggies and dollops of chopped jalapeo.
banh mi and Che Cali (318 Spadina, at Dundas West, 416-599-8948). Price: $1 to $1.50 . Rating: NNNN
a few doors south, banh mi and Che Cali is the busiest of the bunch, though most of the action is on the che cali (snacks) side of the store rather than at the banh mi (bread) counter by the door. We had trouble differentiating between the similarly sauced barbecued chicken and pork sandwiches, but we became instant fans of the vegetarian banh mi, especially its crunchy tangle of marinated bean curd, carrot and daikon.
GINGER (695 Yonge, at Charles, 416-966-2424). Price: $2.25 . Rating: NNNN
uptown, ginger does toronto's priciest and most upscale Saigon sub. We were particularly impressed with the chicken rendition, chunks of moist char-grilled breast and requisite veggies doused with salty sambal. Ginger is also the only joint surveyed that cookbook-correctly warmed its buns. Think griddle-pressed panini.
kim thanh (336 Spadina, at Dundas West, 416-979-7928). Price: $1.50 . Rating: NNN
the furthest north, kim thanh offers less savoury fare. Although my notes on the vegetarian version read favourably ("shredded tofu strips, cubed carrot, daikon threads, coriander, caramelized onion and seaweed, but no cuke"), those on its meaty banh mi mention that the fillings taste like liverwurst, cat food and hot dog wieners..
Nguyen Huong Foods (320 Spadina, at Dundas West). Price: $1.50 . Rating: NN
nearby nguyen huong foods sells these mystery meats for between $4 and $5 a kilo and stuffs them unappetizingly into not very fresh buns.
TUNG HING BAKERY (674 Gerrard East, at Broadview, 416-461-1978, and others). Price: $1.50 . Rating: NNN
tung hing bakery has several outlets across the GTA, including three downtown. While its fillings are fairly typical, its submarine-style buns are longer than most, 91/2 inches to the regulation 8. However, veggies take a back seat to cold cuts that recall fatty corned beef and baloney.
GALAXY DONUTS (1228 King West, at Dufferin, 416-531-7542). Price: $1.50 . Rating: NN
a bike courier pal recommends Parkdale's Galaxy Donuts. He claims its Vietnamese sandwich makes a great energy boost while riding. But I find a small, pre-made sub daubed with pâté of some sort, a few anonymous slices of meat, a wayward stalk of daikon and a wilted sprig of coriander.
NEW JASON'S COFFEE SHOP (538 Dundas West, at Kensington, 416-977-2168). Price: $2 . Rating: NN
in the same nabe, new jason's cof fee Shop ditches daikon for Spanish onion in what may as well be a prepackaged ham sandwich in a hot dog bun. Because it's unavailable the day I visit, I'm unable to venture an opinion on Jason's "Hot Dog (Chinese style): 50 cents."
be le 2 (1498 Queen West, at Macdonell, 416-538-7978) . Price: $2 . Rating: NN
how can something as simple as banh mi go so far off the rails? The newest of the lot, Ba Le 2 jumps the tracks, substituting skinny 12-inch Wonder Bread loaves for fresh French stick and topping them with something that tastes like nuked Spam nuggets in ketchup but claims to be "meatballs in tomato sauce". Falafel, anyone?