Wahlburgers Makes a Banh Mi Burger, Gets It All Wrong
Wahlburgers — Paul, Marky Mark, and Donnie Wahlberg’s burger chain out of Boston — plopped its first Philadelphia outpost onto the northern tip of Schmidt’s Commons (formerly called Piazza at Schmidt’s), where Darling’s Diner used to hold residence. There, the bros brought their fat-stacked patty melts and “Dorchestah”-inspired burgers to a city already so full of casual burger joints, some chains (Shake Shack, Bareburger, BurgerFi), some not (SpOt Burgers, Sketch Burger, P’unk Burger). When ordering at Wahlburgers, we Philadelphians must give up our mid-Atlantic dialect to Northeast inflections — “fluffanuttas” and “smahlburgers” — which can be a bit awkward, but the product is decent enough, so, eh.
But Wahlburger’s executive chef Paul Wahlberg just added a new menu item called the Banh Mi Burger, and I have thoughts.
The banh mi sandwich, like pho, is iconic Vietnamese cuisine — a byproduct of French colonialism in Vietnam. It’s basically the Vietnamese version of a baguette sandwich or, through a Philadelphian’s lens, a hoagie. Some (I) consider them to be among the world’s best sandwiches — a perfect polygamous relationship between sweet, savory, spicy, sour, and fresh owing to a crunchy combination of pickled carrots and radishes, cucumbers, chilis, and cilantro. The meat of the sandwich could be anything from pork belly to lunch meat to sausage. And in Philly, a city so wealthy with fantastic Vietnamese restaurants, there’s a plethora of banh mi renditions to get after (more on that later). Unsurprisingly, the Wahlburgers banh mi burger ain’t one of ’em.
For a limited time (now until Memorial Day, May 29th), the Northern Liberties shop will serve turkey burgers topped with sriracha mayo, country pȃté, kimchi, fresh jalapeño, english cucumbers, and cilantro, served on a potato bun.
Wait, back up. Kimchi?
So many questions: What is a distinctively, undeniably, not-Vietnamese-in-any-way Korean condiment doing on an otherwise very Vietnamese sandwich (aside from the potato bun)? It was obviously an intentional decision made by the Wahlburgers corporation, but for what purpose? It’s not like it’s billed as a “Korean Banh Mi”. The thing had the semblance of a banh mi sandwich without it, but since there aren’t any other Korean elements involved, why even introduce it to the sandwich at all?
The only real connection between banh mis and kimchi is that they’re both Asian specialty foods, albeit from countries 1,900 miles apart from each other. But if that’s all it took for Paul and his brothers to think it belongs on a banh mi, then we should all feel a little uncomfortable about it.
Hey, maybe you’re into the idea of a Vietnamese-Korean fusion burger by a Boston chain restaurant in Philly, maybe that’s your thing. Me? I’m sticking to these nine spots:
Ba Le Bakery, South Philly
Ba Le’s banh mis are the gold standard. They’re the metric by which every other banh mi in the city is compared because every component of the sandwich, from its flaky, airy baguette (so good, most Vietnamese restaurants and shops use them) to its time-honored fillings, has been perfected over 20 years of service.
Artisan Boulanger Pâtissier, East Passyunk
Andre Chin and Amanda Eap aren’t Vietnamese, nor are they French. They’re just a couple of Cambodians making some of the best French bread in Philly — perfect, thick-crusted vessels for pork belly and and pȃté.
Stock’s Tyler Akin serves an all cheffed-up version of the sandwich with cucumber, jalapeño, cilantro, pickled red cabbage, Japanese mayo, and your choice of berkshire farms pork sausage, tofu, or thai basil chicken.
Q T Vietnamese Sandwich Co., Chinatown
Since 2008, the best banh mis in Chinatown have come from this super tiny, super friendly orange take-out counter.
Double Knot, Midtown Village
Michael Schulson’s all-day restaurant does an 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. quick-serve southeast Asian menu of shrimp, pork, steak, meatball, tofu, and chicken in a variety of styles: in a salad, over rice, mixed with noodles, and stuffed between Ba Le’s bread.
Fu Wah Mini Market, West Philly
This West Philly market and deli serves all kinds of hoagies from turkey and cheese to Italian. But make no mistake, the reason people have traveled from far and wide to this tiny store front — the reason it’s stood the test of time (over 35 years) — is because it puts out some finest spicy banh mis in Philly.
Banh Mi & Bottles, South Street
Home of the Vietnamese french dip where a fantastic brisket banh mi comes with a side of pho broth — you know, for dipping.
Kung Fu Hoagies, food cart
Paul Davis and Steven Renzi’s tiny yellow banh mi cart (which rolls around West and South Philly) is vegetarian and vegan-friendly. But even the most ardent carnivore will find that their banh mis are damn good sandwiches, even if they substitute pork for a mixture of tofu and yams.
Street Side, Northern Liberties
You could pass by this storefront every day without knowing there was a little Southeast Asian restaurant happening inside of it. Get your banh mi with non-traditional fillings like Cambodian Kroeung beef and fried coconut shrimp.