The best bánh mì in Chicago?
Nhu' Lan Bakery
2612 W. Lawrence, Chicago IL 60625 (map); 773-878-9898
The Short Order: Freshly baked bread and perfect bánh mì.
Want Fries with That? Nope, but some shrimp chips are possible.
Want Ketchup? This sandwich needs nothing, eat it as is.
You can keep your paninis. I'll forever give up the club sandwich or limit my meatball sub intake—but me and thebánh mì have a serious, committed sandwich relationship that needs constant nourishment. The bánh mì's power lies in its striking balance. The fatty meat, which can include head cheese and pate, contrasts with the acidic, pickled vegetables like daikon radishes, cucumbers, and carrots. Have I mentioned the slight jalapeño kick? The way the cilantro haunts each bite?
But first lets talk about the bread. It needs to be Vietnamese baguette. I had a version on an Italian roll once and nearly threw the sandwich back at the vendor's face. Using both wheat and rice flour (see, it's all about balance), the Vietnamese baguette rolls are delicately crisp on the outside and improbably tender on the inside.
In Chicago, most people tend to prefer the bánh mìs at Ba Le Bakery. They are certainly a glorious thing but I've gravitated to Nhu' Lan Bakery. Not only is it closer to my house, but their sandwiches have a better balance of ingredients.
Their bread is freshly baked and as you walk into the tiny storefront, you can spot the rolls that just came out of the oven. Like all good bread, it's good enough to eat by itself. The crust seems to shatter in a million pieces when your teeth sink in, giving way to an improbably soft interior.
The store is small and most of their orders are to-go. The only people I've seen sit at their two small tables were waiting for their order to be made.
They have a whole case of packaged items like shrimp dumplings, shrimp summer rolls, and steamed pork rolls—good, if not particularly great. If I tend to get anything besides a bánh mì, it's the shrimp chips. I don't know why I love them so much.
My only real decision is which of the 11 different kinds of bánh mì to get. Fellow Chicago correspondent Michael Nagrant has already spoken his mind about the wonders of the Lemongrass Tofu Banh Mi (#10).
My wife always orders the Barbecued Pork (#4). The pork comes out piping hot and that contrast between the warm meat and cool vegetables is really addicting.
I'm quite partial to #5, which has pork belly, pate, and a pork roll. The trifecta of pork, and the shear amount of fat that comes along with it, would overwhelm more humble sandwiches. But here everything is calmed by the healthy helping of vegetables. It never seems like too much.
Not only is this a great sandwich, it's also one of the best bargains in the city—none of them are over $3.25.
During the middle of the summer one of my favorite Chicago activities is picking up a few sandwiches and eating them along the lake with my wife and dog. But that warm memory doesn't explain why it still tastes good on a miserably cold afternoon, or late at night, or just about any other time.