“It’s my favorite one, and I’m not even a vegetarian,” the server at Pho 14 told me when I ordered the bánh mì chay for the first time. “It’s the tofu. It’s so good.” Considering my order also included a massive bowl of pho with roughly six different cuts of beef, it must have been obvious I wasn’t a vegetarian, either.
One of the many, many things I’ve always loved about the Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich is its versatility. There are some conventions that should be obeyed: Pickled vegetables, fresh cilantro, hot peppers, maybe some sliced cucumber and a smear of mayo or butter are the foundation. The split, baguette-like bread for which the sandwich is named is non-negotiable. But beyond these basic guidelines, the artist is limited only by his or her imagination. Traditionally the sandwich has featured everything from marinated and grilled meat, head cheese or meatballs to shrimp paste and pork skin. Eggs and pâté are popular ancillary components.
Bánh mì chay, the vegetarian-friendly version, is typically prepared with a mix of fresh vegetables and seitan or, as at Pho 14, tofu. By the time I tried it for the first time, I’d eaten just about every other variety of bánh mì on the Pho 14 menu, most of them on numerous occasions. I had a vague idea of what to expect of the bánh mì chay, but I wondered how the absence of meat would affect the delicate balance of sweet, spicy, salty and sour that defines the sandwich. I worried that the tofu would be a neutral spectator, an inert placeholder simply filling the void of the marinated red pork that features in my favorite bánh mì.
As it turns out, the boilerplate fixings predictably hold up their end of the deal, and the fried tofu lends a pleasantly surprising, robust nuttiness to the mix. A generous dousing of sriracha magnifies rather than overwhelms. Though it’s not likely to require you to loosen your belt afterwards, the bánh mì chay is no “lighter” a meal than its meat-centric brethren. For less than $5, it’s also one of the most budget-friendly, high-quality sandwiches you’ll find anywhere in the District.
Like a pair of dark-wash jeans or a nice blazer, bánh mì can be dressed up or dressed down to suit almost any occasion. On the more upscale side, there is the refined interpretations at Dickson Wine Bar on U Street. On the other end are the myriad offerings in and around the Vietnamese cultural and culinary community of Eden Center in Falls Church, Va. (Note: Please don’t talk to me about “authenticity.”) The consistently gratifying, simple bánh mì available at Pho 14’s three D.C. locations fall somewhere in the comfortable middle, and there’s not a sandwich among them — including the vegetarian-friendly bánh mì chay — that I wouldn’t recommend.