There have long been plenty of banh mi to be found in downtown Portland from myriad near-identical Vietnamese food carts. But, broadly speaking, they haven't been any good. A really great version of the Franco-Vietnamese sandwich requires a very fresh baguette, which food carts are hard-pressed to produce. Until last week, I'd yet to eat a downtown banh mi that merited more than a shrug. Then I went to I Banh Mi.
I Banh Mi is sequestered in the former Super Dog site in the parking garage at Southwest 6th Avenue and Main Street. And it is, to the best of my knowledge, the first banh mi shop on the west side of the Willamette to bake its own bread. The loaves are long and flaky, on par with those from An Xuyen Bakery or Binh Minh Sandwiches. But I Banh Mi offers a better view than Southeast Foster Road. Instead of listless lingerie models taking smoke breaks or sprinting pedestrians, you get a man in a black knit cap and gloves slowly rotating in place, a drunk pissing on a trash can, and a woman screaming along to Tom Petty's "The Waiting." (Waiting is no hardship at I Banh Mi, where sandwiches tend to be ready by the time you sit down.)
Like An Xuyen, I Banh Mi offers the classic fillings—juicy meatballs, barbecued pork—along with some unconventional, Americanized meats, including a surprisingly good chicken chipotle. At $3.95 apiece, or $5 with a sugary Vietnamese coffee, the sandwiches are 30 percent more expensive than their eastside equivalents, but also 30 percent larger. At around 14 well-stuffed, mayo-lubed inches, they are filling enough to make a full lunch on their own—especially with the addition of a fried egg, which makes the slightly dry barbecued pork sandwich moist and fatty. If that doesn't get you there, grab a pork steamed bun ($1.49)—they're two hot and squishy mouthfuls of sweet, meaty satisfaction.
- Order this: The fat, salty meatball banh mi.
- Best deal: Coconut steamed bun (99 cents).
- Iâll pass: The Vietnamese coffee is as syrupy as Starbucksâ worst.
EAT: I Banh Mi, 1033 SW 6th Ave., 477-9150. Breakfast and lunch daily. $.