163 Vietnamese Sandwich 66 Harrison Avenue (near Beach Street), Boston, MA, (617) 988-8006
Open daily, cash only.
We went in to Boston yesterday to see a dance performance matinee at the Institute for Contemporary Arts. Since today is Marathon Monday, we thought traffic and crowds might make it tough to get in on time. So we decided to go in early and grab lunch. Beppo had a craving for banh mi and after a holler over on Twitter the Leather District Gourmet was gracious enough to share her recommendation: 163 [Vietnamese] Sandwich.
For those not familiar with these lovely sandwiches (they have gotten a lot of press lately). I was first introduced to them through an essay in John Thorne's wonderful book Pot on the Fire. The best banh mi (pronounced sorta like "bun mee") are made of a small, heated, fresh baguette spread with a mayonnaise-type spread and stuffed with meat or tofu and topped with fresh vegetables. They have become the darling of the foodie world for two reasons: they are usually very inexpensive and they are absolutely delicious!
In my opinion, 163 Sandwich provides one of the better banh mi experiences in Chinatown. The tiny shop was packed with a mixture of students, locals and food-tourists like us. There were a number of helpful photos over the counter; a great feature for those who aren't conversant in banh mi options. They also offered a number of other choices (spring rolls and noodle salads and rice plates) which is nice when you're with a larger group and want to try a variety of options.
We ordered a curried chicken, a shredded pork and (for seconds) a barbecue beef banh mi. Each was topped with daikon, onion, carrot, cucumber, chilies (on request) and cilantro. The rolls were crusty and warm (I will say, at 8-9 inches, they were a tiny bit too big for the fillings, but that's a minor quibble).
The curried chicken filling reminded me a lot of "doubles", a curried chickpea sandwich from the Caribbean. I got mine with extra chilies and three hours later the corner of my mouth was still humming from the heat. Beppo ate both the pork and beef sandwiches and decided that the pork was his favorite of the two.
These sandwiches and this setting are a great introduction to Vietnamese food for the tentative. The variety of flavors in each bite make for an exciting lunch or dinner option. These banh mi are priced from $2.75 to $3.00 each (those are not typos). Unless you're a huge eater, you can get a very satisfying lunch for three bucks! You can't even get a quarter pounder at McDonald's for that, and these sandwiches are so much more delicious and satisfying.
For those of you too far from a Chinatown to have a banh mi experience, here's a post from two years ago (OMG two years!) about homemade banh mi.