Cheap Eats - Finding good banh mi
Stopping for sandwiches at We Suki Suki and Quoc HuongMonday April 23, 2012 11:05 am EDT
The banh mi should be the sandwich that spells doom for the modern American fast-food crisis. This bargain of French-Vietnamese fusion comes cheap and fresh, fills you up, and is packed with enough flavor and crunchy contrast to obliterate almost any fast-food burger. Alas, we do not live in a perfect world. A perfect world would have banh mi hawkers on every corner, pleasing the masses with a (relatively) healthy and near-pinnacle example of what a sandwich can be.
For those of you who have not had the "aha!" moment of biting into a banh mi for the first time, the gist is this: For as little as two bucks, you can get a freshly baked French baguette stuffed with flavorful grilled meat or tofu or Vietnamese deli meat, along with the bright crisp crunch of slivers of pickled carrots and daikon, a sprinkling of cilantro and jalapeño, and a smear of decadent Vietnamese mayo. The crush of flavors and textures in a good banh mi brings to mind something like an intricate Nine Inch Nails song, layers building upon layers, from the bass-like funk of pâté to the hi-hat tingle of jalapeño to the ambient warmth of a great roll of crusty, soft-in-the-middle bread. A good banh mi is a modern masterpiece.
For years, finding a good banh mi shop in Atlanta meant going to Buford Highway. Go to Yelp, type in "banh mi," and you'll get a quick confirmation of that — a line of red dots extending up from Lee's Bakery near Clairmont Road straight out to I-285 like a beacon of bargain-food brilliance. A few shops out in Norcross (Huy's most prominently) have joined the fray recently, and you can also find a banh mi at a few spots in Midtown, either as a special (Star Provisions) or a strange staple (MidCity Café). But a dedicated banh mi shop in town, far from the magical madness that is Buford Highway? That was just a dream, until about two months ago.
In East Atlanta Village, there's a little window that shouts, "Buford Hwy EAV." The shop goes by the name We Suki Suki ("we like like"), and the proprietor, a woman named Q, packs enough energy and drive to fuel all of EAV. The premise is simple — banh mi and bubble tea worthy of Buford Highway, but with the unmistakable vibe of a vibrant intown community full of individualism. Q makes her own tapioca bubbles for the Vietnamese iced coffee "boba" or bubble tea, and features handcrafted organic tofu to boot. This crowded little take-out shop seemingly shakes with a chaotic confluence of ideas and dreams — bubble tea, banh mi, and soy simply acting as the physical manifestation of Q's desire to build something meaningful in the midst of her community.
Maybe banh mi breed chaos, because the vibe at Buford Highway's most esteemed banh mi shop, Quoc Huong, is every bit as chaotic as Q's faraway counter. Three women here staff an assembly line of sandwich magic, maniacally spreading mayo on bread, quickly stacking meats and pickles and cilantro, wrapping it all up in paper lightning fast. Bags of these finished baguettes make their way to the shelves behind the cash register, awaiting eager orderers of takeout. This is an operation that runs on automatic overdrive, cranking out banh mi for $2 a pop (buy five, get one free — holy Clark Howard moment, Batman!).
So, the inevitable question is ... how does baby We Suki Suki stack up to its Buford Highway elder? Pretty well, if you ask me. You pay a little more per sandwich ($4 versus $2-$2.50), but you get more flavor (hello, Sriracha) and a whole lot more personality. Both offer good value — sure, Quoc Huong is cheaper, but the corresponding gas dollars required to get there and back if you live near EAV can cost more than the banh mi itself. Both have the sunshine-yellow Vietnamese mayonnaise, but We Suki Suki spreads it a bit more generously (a good thing). Both have the bright crunch of the veggies and cilantro, though my last two visits to Quoc Huong were marred by the daikon being conspicuously absent (gotta have the daikon!).
As for the differences, I actually prefer the fillings on We Suki Suki's sandwiches across the board versus Quoc Huong. We Suki Suki's pork in the dac biet is a bit heartier, the spread of pâté a bit more robust, lending a deeper layer of funk that pulls the sandwich together better. If you don't dig on swine, We Suki Suki's lemongrass tofu makes a compelling alternative, just "meaty" enough to make you not miss the meat. And the spicy lemongrass chicken at We Suki Suki wins hands down; Quoc Huong's chicken suffers from being overly sweet and stringy-dry. However, Quoc Huong does have the distinct advantage of offering a stellar "barbecue" pork banh mi — well spiced, smoky, and tender.
The biggest advantage for Quoc Huong? The bread. Quoc Huong's baguettes are without fault — shatteringly crusty outside, soft and airy within. Q at We Suki Suki still grapples with bread quality; the results so far are a bit too variable, from too soft to too crunchy-toasted on the same visit. If We Suki Suki can nail the bread, there will be little reason for those around EAV to head up to Buford Highway for great banh mi.
Just two months in, We Suki Suki is building a steady clientele in an offbeat neighborhood — folks appreciative to get a little bit of banh mi heaven without the drive up I-85. Atlanta could use a lot more We Suki Sukis around town; something to divert bargain dining dollars away from fast-food conglomerates, something to truly give people a "happy meal" for four bucks.