The banh mi may be the ultimate sandwich: cheap, filling and delicious. Though the signature Vietnamese sub is traditionally stuffed with all manner of meats—pork, head cheese, pate, sometimes liverwurst or ham—here in San Francisco you'll find interpretations overflowing with chicken, duck, tofu and more. From the Tenderloin to the Richmond, here's where to find the most satisfying versions of the beloved banh mi sandwich.
SF’s best banh mi
The perpetual line snaking down the sidewalk is testament to the authentic fare at this Little Saigon hole-in-the-wall. The decor is sparse and the menu is short: Banh mi ga (roast chicken), thit (roasted pork), xiu mai (meatball pork), cha lua (pork paté) or tofu, each for under five bucks. Meat-lovers opt for the special combination thit cha paté, which is heaped with chicken, pork loaf and pate. All sandwiches are piled with pickled carrots and daikon, cilantro and jalapeños. There are only two cursory seats in the whole shop, so make like a regular: get your sandwich to go and eat it quick, while it's still warm.
The menu is an embarrassment of riches at this cheery café, where the walls are painted orangey-red and the service is fast and friendly. You'll find ten varieties of banh mi, each topped with onions, pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro, cucumbers, jalapeños and homemade aioli. The sandwiches pack a little kick, thanks to add-ons like caramelized onions, crunchy Vietnamese cole slaw and braised egg. Vegetarians swear by the meatless option, in which smoky Portobello mushroom and eggplant is doused with homemade soy sauce.
Dinosaur's slightly higher prices reflect the quality ingredients and the Castro locale. In addition to an array of banh mi options—marinated grilled pork, crispy tofu, shaken beef, steamed meatballs and spicy tuna among them—this spot gets points for its fresh-made spring rolls, available in chicken and shrimp, pork and shrimp and vegan tofu varieties. The sandwiches are topped with the usual garnishes (plus vegenaise, upon request). Save room for the Vietnamese coffee, brewed from dark roasted beans and chicory, or the watermelon lychee smoothie.
This unassuming deli counter at Duc Loi Market churns out fresh, authentic banh mi in hearty portions. The classic sandwich is stacked with pork pot roast, liverwurst, pork roll, head cheese and pork belly, then topped with daikon, carrot, jalapeño, cilantro and cucumber. Those less meat-friendly should go for the fried chicken banh mi—the chicken breast arrives still hot from the fryer. Lemongrass adds a nice kick to the barbecue pork and barbecue chicken subs, which are moist, messy and addictive. Stock up on house-made spring rolls, kimchi and green papaya salad in the cold case up front.
Regulars swear by the no-frills breakfast sandwiches at this narrow shop, where the walls are covered with colorful kids’ art. Though the menu includes standard sandwiches like turkey, tuna and egg salad as well, owner Jacky Ly's not-so-secret specialty is his carefully crafted banh mi. The French bread has a soft crumb and a crunchy crust that holds up fillings like barbecue pork, steamed pork, barbecue chicken and paté. But the most popular version is the chicken meatball banh mi, in which slabs of creamy avocado balance the spice of the jalapeños.
Decked with fresh flowers and offering ample seating, Dragon Eats is a refreshing change of pace from the stark delis of Little Saigon. The food—though non-traditional—offers a welcome twist as well. Banh mi fillings include five-spice chicken, marinated roasted pork belly, roasted duck, sardines, teriyaki tofu, pork meatball and garlic butter chicken. While all are paired with paté, mayo, and the usual garnishes, the sardine version also includes fried shallots and onions, while the roasted duck sandwich is drizzled in sweet and sour sauce. Pair your sandwich with a green papaya salad and wash it down with the house-made salty lemonade.
This small, family-run sandwich shop serves rice plates, noodles, grab-and-go spring rolls and vermicelli bowls, but it's best known for its overflowing banh mi subs. Choose from ham paté, five-spice chicken, lemongrass pork, pork meatball and marinated crispy tofu, each topped with pickled vegetables, cucumbers, mayo, cilantro and jalapeños. Though there's limited seating inside, you can chow down at one of the sidewalk tables beside a mural of the San Francisco bay. Ask for the Peter's Special: the addition of a fried egg and special sauce is well worth the extra money.
The combo banh mi has earned this take-out joint a loyal following; there's even a handy diagram posted beside the register that dissects its many, meaty layers. The toasted bread is slathered in mayo, then stacked with American ham, Vietnamese pork, French country paté, daikon and carrots, jalapeños, cucumbers and cilantro. Each sandwich is made-to-order, including versions topped with grilled chicken, meatballs, grilled pork and ham. Polish off your meal with Ty’s addictive Thai iced tea.
This unmarked Tenderloin shop is a two-person operation—mom and son—which occasionally results in a lunchtime bottleneck. It's worth the wait for these fresh, carefully constructed sandwiches, laden with curry-rubbed chicken, Chinese barbecue pork, lemongrass beef, tofu and more. In addition to the usual pickled vegetables, jalapeños and cilantro, Mom's sandwiches are topped with green onion, which helps offset the richness of the pork belly or jambon. Add an egg for an extra buck.
If you like your sandwich with a side of ambiance, this is the place for you. Clusters of bare bulbs hang artfully from the ceiling, and colorful illustrations of a helmet-clad scooter girl adorn the walls. (If, on the other hand, you're constitutionally opposed to paying more than $5 for banh mi, keep walking.) There are nine versions of the sandwich available, including modern twists like turmeric-spiced fried catfish and red curry ground beef with thai basil. But the real star is the kurobuta pork, best showcased in the Bun Mee combo: grilled lemongrass pork, paté de campagne, mortadella, garlic mayo shaved onion, pickled carrot and daikon, cucumber, jalapeños and cilantro. Apart from sandwiches, the restaurant serves up dinner-sized salads, noodle and rice bowls and crowd-pleasing sides like Momma Tran’s crispy egg rolls and salt and pepper fries sautéed with red onions, garlic and jalapeños.