It’s been almost five years since I surveyed the city’s banh mi. Back then, when the availability of these miraculous products of French Indochinese colonization were mostly limited to opposite ends of Little Saigon, I fantasized an ideal world where the economical and delicious sandwiches could be had in every neighborhood. Since then little has changed, with the exception of Ravenswood’s Nhu Lan Bakery, which now sets the city standard and makes a sandwich worth risking your life for, and the occasional appearance of Ba Le sandwiches at Farmstand.
So I was excited to see someone step up in Wicker Park when Bon Bon Sandwiches moved into the North Avenue storefront occupied by the pre-prepped meal house My Gourmet Kitchen. MGK has since left the building, but Bon Bon endures, serving up five separate banh mi at $3.95 apiece (in addition to bubble tea, iced coffee, and a range of Asian sweets). That’s relatively pricey, but given the probable higher rent, an extra 75 cents or so is forgivable if the sandwich delivers.
I took in portions of four sandwiches, including the classic (pictured) with thick slices of headcheese and ham, generous swabs of paté, an indiscriminate tangle of pickled daikon and carrot, token scraps of cilantro and jalapeño, and a smear of mayo, all cradled on a mini baguette. The more unorthodox pork char siu and ginger chicken, that one marinated in “savory caramel sauce,” both host toothy, irregular knobs of meat in addition to the usual garnishes, and the portobello–the only complete failure–cradles long, rubbery strips of sweet (balsamic?) marinated fungus that destroy the integrity of the bread.
The bread is key. Since Bon Bon’s comes from Nhu Lan, half the battle should be won–I’ve never had a Nhu Lan sandwich whose oven-warmed crust wasn’t crackly crisp and whose crumb wasn’t lighter than air. But Vietnamese baguettes have a short shelf life, and by the time they’re passed over the counters at Bon Bon they’ve gone soft and spongy. But short of baking their own bread, I’m not sure what those folks could be expected to do about that.
All that said, by advancing the spread of banh mi, Bon Bon is doing a good thing for Wicker Park and a good thing for all.
Bon Bon Sandwiches, 2333 W. North, 773-278-5800