Saigon Sandwich

Saigon Sandwich

True dining bargains are so few and so far between in Paris that by the time you discover a new one, the previous find has usually turned into an old legend that the Elders like to recount around the fire while the Young sit there and wish they’d brought their iPod.

But when it comes to lunch and fuss-free food, Paris has no shortage of hole-in-the-wall gems: you just need to know where to look. And today, let us look in the general direction of Belleville and, more precisely, a little street off the general hullabaloo of the boulevard.

There hides a Vietnamese sandwich joint called Saigon Sandwich. Barely larger than my kitchen, it is the workshop of one sandwich-making artist, a middle-aged man who takes immense pride in the quality and freshness of his subs, assembled to order throughout the day.

To those unfamiliar with the Vietnamese sandwich, let me introduce the bánh mì, a deceptively simple combination of meat, crudités (cucumbers, carrots, daikon, onions, cilantro, chili), and some sort of dressing (most often mayonnaise, garlic chili sauce, Maggi sauce, or a combination thereof) on a piece of light-textured baguette — a little souvenir of the friendly presence of the French in Vietnam in the 19th and 20th century.

The Vietnamese sandwich can range from dull to divine depending on who makes it, and this particular provider was propelled to the very top of our list when Maxence worked in the neighborhood. He visited on a semi-daily basis then, he introduced me to the cult, and now that his office has moved to a completely different area, we make the special trip every once in a while, when the craving just becomes too much to bear.

The menu at Saigon Sandwich offers just three options — a blessing for the perpetually undecided — to be washed down with coconut or soy juice. The Classique involves sliced pork (jambonneau) and Vietnamese salami; the Spécial adds to that headcheese (fromage de tête) and sliced meatballs; but our favorite is the Poulet, garnished with marinated and steamed chicken.

If you engage the owner in conversation as he puts your lunch together, he will explain how carefully he selects the cuts of meat, how he steams them so the unnecessary fat will drain out without any sacrifice of moisture, how he makes his own mayonnaise (he may even have you taste it on a little round of baguette to prove his point), how he peels and cuts his vegetables in small batches so they won’t dry out, and how he goes to the bakery every few hours throughout the day, to get fresh bread as it comes out of the oven.

We like to sit on the low plastic stools and eat our sandwiches as we chat and watch the steady stream of regulars walk in and out, but most people just buy theirs to go. Just don’t go too far: once you’re done, there is a non-negligible chance you will want to buy another one and save it for supper.

Saigon Sandwich Map it!
8 rue de la Présentation, 75011 Paris
Mon-Sat 10am-6pm; Sun 10am-2pm

  • http://www.patoumi.blogspot.com patoumi

    Clotilde, la prochaine fois que je suis à Paris, j’essaie! J’aime beaucoup la façon que tu as d’évoquer votre addiction à cet endroit, nous avons la même en ce moment avec un boui boui bio à côté de la maison.

  • http://www.noodlepie.com Graham

    Ha… The “some sort of dressing” in the middle caused quite a bit of discussion when I asked noodlepie readers about it,

    http://www.noodlepie.com/2006/10/the_vietnamese_.html

    I think one of the key problems with making a truly authentic banh mi is the bread. It simply is not the same in France.

    The bread is better in France, but it is generally too heavy for a banh mi. At least in my limited experience.

    However, I’ll definitely check this out when I’m next your way. I really, really miss good banh mi :(

  • http://adrianmoore.blogspot.com adrian

    Hmm. not too far from my ‘hood…

  • http://nami-nami.blogspot.com/ Pille

    I wish I had known about this little place when I was in Paris last May! Ever since I read about bánh mì over at Melissa’s blog Traveler’s Lunchbox, I’ve been really wanting to try this Vietnamese dish.
    Thanks for the tip, Clotilde!

  • LisA

    We used to live in LA not far from Little Saigon (which is not so little) and had many choices of bahn mi shops. There are other kinds of banh mi, made with variations of pork, beef, or pate. Loved them all! Here in Michigan I miss the banh mi and the pho. We could see the french influence on vietnamese cooking in the breads, the coffees, and the stews.

  • sunny12

    The first time I tried a Vietamese sub was in Toronto (Canada). I remember pointing to what I wanted because no one seemed to speak English, and then went to pay. She said it was a dollar, and I said, no, I want the one with the meat in it, and she said it was still a dollar. Then, as now, you can’t get anything to eat for that cheap, but it was a truly delicious sandwich! I wasn’t really sure what was in it, perhaps the mystery meat I was thinking of is actually headcheese. Sometimes it is better for me not to know what it is…

  • Cam Withers

    Dear Clotilde, “fromage de tete” is actually “brawn” in English, rather than the literal translation “head cheese”.
    Paris has so much fabulous Vietnamese food that it reminds me of Australia (rather tha Vietnam, where it tends not to be so great). There was a brilliant little restaurant at Place Maubert that’s always packed and serves simple, spicey soups that were utterly satisfying. It’s one of my best memories of living in Paris.

  • nicole marie

    Maybe “brawn” is dialectal — I’ve certainly never seen or heard it before. But I knew exactly what Clotilde meant when she said “head cheese”!

  • http://www.areweinparisyet.blogspot.com shelli

    Clotilde, I laughed out loud at your description of the crowd around the fire!

    Thanks for the address, it goes in the file. We’ve just returned from Vietnam, where we were surprised to find we preferred our local Vietnamese food to what we encountered there (even with noodlepie’s recommendations).

    The banh mi down the street in El Cerrito and the pho gai in Oakland are still the highest form of each we’ve ever had. Something to look forward to on your book tour, maybe.

  • http://www.cforcooking.com Jeff

    I would picture those sandwiches being really spicay!

  • Snoop

    Brawn isn’t dialectal – it’s the correct British English term. Head cheese isn’t dialectal either – it’s the correct American English term.

    Either way, I bet French fromage de tête is better than the British or American version!

  • http://www.bfeedme.com/ Allison

    Oooo, sounds nice. A bargain in Paris? Who knew?

  • Yazmena

    Hi Clotilde,

    This is one of my favorite cheap eats in Orange County. There is even a chain of banh mi called Lee’s. But my favorite banh mi restaurants are the mom and pops. Mmmmmm I think I might have one for dinner that and the iced Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk is absolutely scrumptious!

  • http://potsdishesplants.blogspot.com http://potsdishesplants.blogspot.com

    That’s gotta be great. I love garlic chili sauce. Use it all the time.

  • F2B

    Thank you so much for this post. I am a huge fan of banh mi and will put this place on my list for next trip to Paris. Can’t wait to try it out!

  • http://www.preyanka.com Preya

    Yes–Vietnam is surprisingly proud of its French flavor, and these sandwiches are indeed delicious, although I’ve only ever had them in Hanoi:)

  • http://www.familyoven.com rich

    I’m going to paris next week, I’m soo excited to go there! thanks for the post!

    -Rich

  • Victoria

    Ah, timely post. I just went to NY and made it a high priority to try a bahn mi sandwich. I went to Bahn Mi So No. 1 on Broome Street near Mott. Excellent. It’s an amazing mix of sweet, light, and rich.

  • https://katek.wordpress.com/ Kate

    Oh my god, I miss banh mi so so much. I left my fabulous Brooklyn neighborhood in August to move to New Hampshire (sigh), and a great shop had opened a block away earlier in the year. I got addicted so fast! Any readers who live in Brooklyn should definitely check out Hanco’s, which is on Bergen Street right by the F train station.
    http://nymag.com/listings/restaurant/hancos/

    Oh, delicious…

  • Jen

    Could you take a picture of the sandwich sometime? I would love to see it!

  • Visitor

    Did you know that the words banh mi comes from ‘pain de mie’? I was told then when I visited Hanoi. Your post has brought back sensational memories of banh mi with that thin pate-like stuff and coriander… Mmmmmm. Thanks!

  • http://colinwetherbee.com/ Colin

    Banh mi is definitely one of my favorite quick sandwiches. I worked very close to a Vietnamese restaurant once, and I’d order them for the whole office!

    By the way, did you know you were mentioned on the BBC today?

  • girl from oz

    It’s actually called “banh mi thit”, as just “banh mi” is too general a term and translates to “bread” or “sandwich”, whereas “banh mi thit” means the sandwich you’re talking about, translating to “meat bread” or “meat sandwich”.

    That’s how we call it in Oz anyway :-)

  • http://www.rasamalaysia.com Rasa Malaysia

    Have you found any Malaysian restaurants in Paris yet? ;)

  • Cal Gal

    I’ve found when you’re jonesing for a V.Sandwich, just saying out loud ‘Let’s get banh mi for lunch!’ will do the trick for a group trek. =) Not sure how it is elsewhere, but in California, the veggies (carrot and daikon) are pickled and julienned. The cilantro and chilis are fresh. The bread is chewy yet crispy. The meats are ‘as you wish’. And I’m now jonesing! ;)

  • http://frenchkitcheninamerica.blogspot.com Mimi J.

    Fromage de tete! My Memere and her sisters used to make that. We may well try this, but I will go with the poulet.

  • Marina

    I love banh mi! Thank you for drawing attention to this fine, fine example of a sandwich.

    The presence of the French in Vietnam wasn’t exactly friendly. Perhaps you are being sarcastic … ? Please don’t gloss over an unhappy history for the sake of maintaining a chic, glossy blog.

  • http://www.only-cookware.com/ Paula

    This just makes me want to go to Paris or Vietnam or anywhere for that matter. I just want to travel and eat.

  • http://chocolateandzucchini.com clotilde

    Graham – The baguette at Saigon Sandwich is a baguette that’s thin-crusted and light-crumbed. It is the sort of baguette I would never buy from a boulangerie, but it works perfectly here.

    Visitor – I had absolutely not thought to link “banh mi” to “pain de mie”, thanks for telling me!

    Marina – Yes, I was being ironic.

  • vincent

    this inspired me to find a Vietnamese Sandwich shop in NYC. I did. It’s called Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwichs.
    It’s reviewed here.

  • Griffin

    “today, let us look in the general direction of Belleville and, more precisely, a little street off the general hullabaloo of the boulevard.”

    A fab reason for a Belleville Rendezvous! Do you cycle there tho’?!

  • http://kittbo.blogspot.com Kitt

    What fun to find out that banh mi is such an affordable delight in so many places. Including Denver.

    I always take the jalapenos out, though.

    Love your blog!

  • Rémi Julien

    le sandwich boeuf citronnelle de la boutique à sandwiches de l’avenue d’Ivry, à côté de l’entrée du parking des frères Tang, dans le 13ème, est aussi une pure merveille.

  • jana

    my SIL who is Burmese/Chinese introduced my sisters and I to this years ago……..we thought it was our little secret until about 5 years ago when it got popular!

    yummm yummm yummmm

  • sylvie

    It’s true that the ‘banh mi-pain de mie’ link has been swirling around – in Vietnam, in articles about Vietnamese food, etc. But the fact is, it has more to do with amusing foreigners than with etymology. In Vietnamese, ‘banh’ refers to any number of foods made from a flour base (all types of flour apply here, but most common, of course, is rice flour) and ‘mi’ means ‘wheat’ or ‘wheat noodle’ or ‘wheat based’. If anything, the word ‘mi’ might stem from Chinese (Indonesian ‘mee goreng’, Thai ‘bamee’, Chinese ‘mein’ all refer to noodles made from wheat. In Vietnamese, these noodles are simply called ‘mi’.) So the French definitely did introduce bread to Vietnam, but the word for the tasty newcomer did not come from the French language, but from pre-existing linguistic concepts.

    Otherwise, I agree with the other comments: Saigon sub, banh mi thit, whatever you call it, it’s one of the best sandwiches around.

  • Lisa

    I had the chance to try the sandwiches today and I must say, it was one of the best that I`ve had in a while. The owner slices and marinates the meat himself so its not only fresh but tastes just right. I can`t wait to have another one. It was perfect!!

  • http://www.prooferking.com Natalie

    So glad I stumbled on to this site. Can’t wait to try this.

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