The thinking goes that if all the components in a sandwich are great, the finished product will sing. Wrong. I’ve built many a soulless sandwich using the most pristine, painstakingly sourced ingredients. No, a brilliant sandwich has a magical something that makes it more than the sum of its parts.
Some could argue the Vietnamese banh mi might be the world’s best sandwich. A fusion of French and Vietnamese sensibilities, the banh mi starts with a soft white roll with a thin, crisp crust, filled with ever-so-lightly pickled fresh vegetables, sprigs of herbs, green chiles, mayonnaise and protein, often a combination that includes charcuterie.
The best of them come from scruffy street stalls and carts in Saigon, Hoi An and Hanoi. Even in San Francisco, the two reigning queens of banh mi hold court at the barebones Saigon Sandwich in the Tenderloin.
So it was with some skepticism that I stepped into the suspiciously smart Bun Mee in Pacific Heights, audaciously located a block and a half away from the king, Out the Door on Bush Street.
From my first bite of Hanoi-style crispy catfish banh mi ($7.95), I knew Bun Mee got it: hot, crispy, juicy fried catfish, crunchy, subtly tart daikon and carrot, thin cucumber, sprigs of cilantro, slices of jalapeño and an almost unnoticeable but essential swoosh of aioli in a tender roll.
So it went with sandwich after sandwich: the sloppy bun ($6.25) is filled with saucy chopped beef in red curry, shaved onion, garlicky aioli, a high note of basil leaves and jalapeños.
Add a sunny-side up egg ($1.50) to this one and make sure that the person you’re sleeping next to has one too. Or, go for the luscious classic combo ($6.50) of soft pate, thinly sliced roast pork and hamlike mortadella.
I, and everyone else, couples their sandwich with a side salad, my favorite being shredded Napa cabbage and peanut ($2.75), a moist slaw in perky ginger-lime dressing.
Mango-sesame salad ($3.25), mostly firm cubed fruit with a sprinkling of shredded Napa cabbage, works like a fruity pickle. This banh mi and salad combo strikes me as the iconic San Francisco meal — light, satisfying, exciting, well-styled.
The genius Vietnamese conflation of the raw and the cooked is at the heart of Bun Mee’s appeal.
There also are substantial bamboo rice bowls ($11.95), anchored by a thick layer of garlic rice and topped with generous portions of tasty grilled meats; and light, sparkly main course salads ($9.75 to $11.95) that juggle the same pantry of ingredients.
The whole operation clicks. Denise Tran, the creator and on-site presence at Bun Mee, was born in Saigon, raised in New Orleans and practiced law in Seattle. But her true love is the Vietnamese kitchen.
She took her mother’s recipes to The Culinary Edge, a group of chefs behind the Chairman Bao food trucks, who helped her realize them for restaurant volume. I met her by chance sitting at the stainless-steel counter in front of the immaculate kitchen.
You can tell that the cooks are pumped about working there. They know that Tran is onto something and they are part of it. You want to be there too.
Patricia Unterman is the author of many editions of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Guide.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: 2015 Fillmore St. (between California and Pine streets), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 800-7696; www.bunmee.co
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, except to 11 p.m. Friday
Price range: $2.95 to $11.95
Recommended dishes: Bun Mee combo sandwich; sloppy bun sandwich; Hanoi crispy catfish sandwich; shredded napa salad; mango salad; sweet potato fries with red curry aioli; coconut cookie sandwich
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa
Reservations: Not accepted; food to go