Taste: The Next Cheesesteak

Is Vietnamese banh mi ready for the big time?

Banh mi are little more than French-influenced Vietnamese hoagies: Vietnamese barbecued pork or other cold cuts are layered on a crusty baguette with homemade mayonnaise, leafy cilantro, slivered pickled carrots, sliced cucumber and daikon, and jalapeño peppers. They’re cool, crisp and slightly spicy. And a sandwich costs just three bucks.

But bahn mi is usually found only in small bakeries in Asian enclaves. Lee’s Sandwiches, a 29-location chain in California and Arizona, is one exception; in 2001, it introduced banh mi to a broad West Coast audience.

Lee’s success was an inspiration to Thuy Tran and her four partners, who opened O Sandwiches in June next to Geno’s in the Italian Market. She and her partners, first-time restaurant owners, set out to make banh mi more widely available on the East Coast, starting with this stylish, chain-ready shop painted with yellow and magenta accents. “It’s been proven on the West Coast that banh mi can sell—we’ve visited several of [Lee’s] shops, and they’re packed with all types of people,” says Tran. “We went with our gut. We think this can work here, and that it’s all about the marketing.”

Tran’s strategy includes serving the sandwiches on authentic French baguettes baked in-house, rather than on the toasted Italian rolls generally used in the Northeast, since Italian bakeries are more prevalent here. O Sandwiches also sells typical American hoagies and Vietnamese spring rolls, summer rolls and vermicelli. Drinks include French-style chicory coffee (hot or iced) and boba tea in 13 flavors, including exotic taro and jackfruit. For dessert, there are sweet coconut-milk puddings to go, in flavors like corn in sweet rice, and “Rainbow Ice,” a mix of green gelatin strips, red kidney beans, and yellow beans pounded to a paste.

Having brought banh mi to Philly’s most emblematic corner, the partners aren’t stopping with one store, says Tran. They’re scouting for a Center City location and eyeing University City property, and anticipate opening a second O within 12 months.