Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
Much like finding a great bagel shop, bánh mì sandwich places are an insanely difficult thing to track down in the Loop. Saigon Sisters in the West Loop might be the most well-known place to get them, but starting at $7 a pop, those prices aren't necessarily lunch friendly. Plus, it is not even technically in the Loop and would require a long walk. A little nosing around on Google came up with one place: Bánh mì Express Sandwiches.
It is located in a little food court that you would probably stroll past if it weren't for the small sign out front. Oddly, it has the opposite problem online, as it inexplicably has three different websites. No kidding.
As soon as you open the papaya salad ($5.99), you're hit with the pungent odor of fish sauce. For a fun experiment, try eating lunch with that coworker who talks too much, because he might just get up and leave. Not everyone likes that smell and I got a lot of complaints, so desk eating might be risky. Trust me, I took a bullet for you on this one. Maybe like six bullets. Six delicious bullets.
Smell aside, the papaya salad is a classic Southeast Asian blend. The standout ingredients are shrimp, pork, cilantro, Thai basil, red onion, peanuts, and fish sauce, which admittedly, is too strong. Perhaps with more vinegar and less fish sauce, it would have a better overall balance; the vegetables become muted with the seasoning.
The bánh mì are impressively large, and on first glance look to be mostly bread with just a little filling. But when you take your first bite, you'll see why: this is one of the airiest baguettes I've ever eaten. The supremely thin golden crust is crackly, while the interior is light, fluffy, and deceptively spongy. And it's fun—a quality you should never underestimate when it comes to food.
The Classic ($4.95) is layered with a buttery yellow mayo, cold cuts, liver pate, and cilantro, but it came without the advertised pickled daikon, cucumber, and carrot (which I think was just an honest mistake). But the sandwich is still flavorful without the crisp pickled vegetables. Coupled with the addictive bread, the porky cold cut sandwich is satisfying with a slightly funky finish from the liver.
The grilled pork ($5.50) did come with all the pickled vegetables, and the pork itself is marinated in a sweet soy mixture that tastes like the same one used with Korean shortribs. The grilling adds a nice charred flavor to the meat, but there isn't quite enough protein. My advice? Ask for extra pork.
The meatball ($5.50) is the heaviest of the three, with dense, salty meatballs as its filling, also seasoned with a touch of fish sauce. With the rich mayo along with the heavy meatballs, I'd easily classify this as hangover food.
The main problem is that the vegetables on all the sandwiches seem to be missing a key characteristic. The cucumbers are sliced thickly, and the vegetables aren't pickled for long enough. Otherwise, when I'm craving bánh mì in the Loop, I'm heading right back for the classic version, and making sure they don't forget the veggies.
Bánh Mì Express Sandwiches
105 West Madison Street, Chicago IL, 60602 (map)