For most of us, the po-boy checks the box as the New Orleans definitive sandwich. The Muffuletta? A one-hit-wonder. Pimento Cheese? Not in my backyard. Yet in recent years another sandwich has steadily been closing the gap – the Vietnamese banh mi. The compelling assemblages on French pistolette-style bread has been encroaching on turf long held by the po-boy. And with good reason – such sandwiches pop with a vibrancy unmatched by our reigning heavyweight champ. The crunch of brightly dressed daikon and carrot, fresh herbs and undercurrent of savory Maggi sauce makes a forceful counter to staid “dressed” components of a typical po-boy. Can’t decide? Then head to Banh Mi Boys on Magazine Street, where you can compare them head-to-head and make up your own mind. There are no losers here, just opinion. Mine now breaks in favor of the banh mi.
Helmed by chef and owner Peter Nguyen, Banh Mi Boys hatched as a little sandwich shop next to a gas station on Airline Drive not far from the Saints and Pelicans headquarters. “At first I focused on traditional Banh Mi and poor boys side-by-side,” Nguyen said. “Along the way I slowly introduced some fusion items, ran specials and built up the menu from there.” Bread for po-boys comes from Leidenheimer’s, and for banh mi from Golden Bakery, a wholesale operation specializing in the distinctively Vietnamese/French pistolettes. Nguyen’s model proved a good one – not reinventing the wheel while folding in incrementally creative choices. Banh Mi Boys avoided the fate of most restaurants through quarantine; he saw business increase even as they scaled back to focus on an exclusively “to-go” model. He has now parleyed this success into a brand-new store on a prime stretch of Magazine Street, bringing his fare into the heart of Uptown.
The most popular item is the “Bang Bang Shrimp,” fried then tossed in a Thai chili glaze and served with the definitive accoutrements of pickled carrot, cucumber and daikon, raw jalapeno and buttery house spread. Here is a sandwich that reaches notes that a po-boy cannot, thanks to the crunch of fresh veg, herbs and raw chili. Larger appetites might want to tackle the spicy Asian BBQ brisket, a personal favorite that is cooked for 12 hours and topped with a housemade spicy Asian BBQ sauce. “It is a hoisin-based sauce but we add a little chili oil and sriracha,” Nguyen said. Those seeking a taste of the Viet-Cajun craze currently sweeping the nation might want to take on the Cajun garlic butter shrimp. “This one is a play on the traditional fried shrimp poor boy,” he said. “We do it as a banh mi and make a compound butter we use to sauté the shrimp.”
While banh mi originated in Vietnam, the culinary outcome of fading French influence coinciding with the increased availability of bread for the general population, Banh Mi Boys casts a wider net. Influences from Korea (bulgogi beef) and Japan (chicken katsu) appear on Nguyen’s menu. Even Hawaii (Loco Moko with spam and eggs) is represented. Vegetarians will find options here too, such as a tofu version underscored with a lemongrass sauce as well as one built around portobello mushrooms.
Banh Mi Boys, 3244 Magazine St., 354-8502. banhmiboysuptown.com.
About the Chef
Originally from Bridge City, Peter Nguyen is a self-taught restauranteur who learned his trade watching his mother cook along with a slew of cooking shows on TV. “I’m a visual learner and I picked up a lot just by watching Food Network and The Cooking Channel,” he explained. Following his success at a start-up spot on Airline Highway, Nguyen leveraged his achievement into his brand new flagship store on Magazine Street. Picking up Banh Mi for get-togethers has never been more convenient, at least for Uptown – an assorted parcel of them will brighten any event where easily munched to-go meals are called for.