Last Updated: June 30, 2021
Call me uncultured, but I first heard of the banh mi, a baguette encasement of vegetables, pâté and protein, in a history class.
I learnt in a passing comment that this hearty Vietnamese sandwich was born out of French colonisation—a chapter in the history textbook I religiously devoured for school. And in the study of things as sorrowful and scathing as war, I took interest in the cuisine of an unfamiliar culture. And after having unforgettably delectable banh mis by the roadsides of Saigon, I began scouring for the best banh mi in Singapore in hopes of a familiar taste of Vietnam at home. In a steady flow of misses, there came 233 Banh Mi, which renewed my longing for a sweet, sweet taste of this sandwich.
Tucked away in the quaint neighbourhood of Joo Chiat, 233 Banh Mi is a modest shop nestled in a row of Peranakan shophouses. It’s helmed by Miss Lily Nguyen, a humble personality who wakes up tirelessly at 5am everyday to prepare for a steady stream of breakfast orders. With a scant menu of four banh mi choices, she revealed her confidence in this traditional dish.
Right off the bat, Vietnamese BBQ Beef Bread (S$5.50) offered a resounding crunch which raised my standards as a textual eater. According to Miss Lily, the addition of rice flour discerns the fleeting crisp of normal baguettes from hers. The crunchy veggies bellowed their presence as well, with slivers of cucumber, pickles and carrots, tinged with just the right balance of sourness and salt—truly giving vegetables the flavour they deserve.
A creamy, savoury layer of pâté and homemade mayonnaise-egg sauce coat the inner walls of the baguette, and I want this sauce combination slapped on all baguettes. How can so much texture be going on in just one bite? And we haven’t even gotten to the BBQ beef yet.
In the heart of the banh mi rests the tender BBQ Beef slices, which are chewy and riddled with marination. I could taste the prominent smoky BBQ flavour, which stood its ground amidst the other flavours but didn’t overpower—just what I appreciate in a lead.
After stealing more bites, I moved on to the Vietnamese Pâté Chicken Bread (S$5.50). The baguette, vegetables, and sauces are the same, and I’m not complaining, since they prime my palate for the savouriness to come. Unique to this sandwich, shreds of grilled chicken come through with delicious marination. I don’t know what goes into Miss Lily’s marination, but I want more. Every bite is umami-packed and refreshing—until I felt an explosion in my mouth the moment I bit into a green chilli—which I’d blissfully long forgotten.
I opted for the addition of Vietnamese chilli, because what’s exploring a cuisine without fully experiencing it in its localness? But of course, I got carried away in the delectable tastes and only realised its presence when I stepped on a fiery landmine. I wish I was warned about this chilli while I was in Vietnam. To my short-lived horror, the spice initially overpowered all flavours, but it slowly waned with the savouriness as I continued munching on the delicious banh mi. As I did so, Olly Murs’ ‘Troublemaker’ rings in my head because, why does it feel so good, but hurt so bad?
Lastly, the Traditional Vietnamese Bread (S$5.50)—the OG of all banh mis here, is a tad toned down in flavour, and definitely not a full representation of 233 Banh Mi’s deliciousness. The thick folds of the chả lụa (pork roll) are lightly seasoned with fish sauce, but the umami’s not quite there yet. Maybe this is a case where the former two outshines the original, but I wished it was more amply seasoned, like its pâté and vegetables.
For a taste of Vietnam’s revered drink, I ordered Vietnamese Iced Dark Coffee (S$2.50) and Iced Milk Coffee (S$2.50). I tried to discern the intricacies of drip coffee in both cups, but its sweetness reigned. Still, riding on the blissful highs of the delicacies that I wolfed down, I had nary to complain about.
As I quietly indulge in my banh mi, I watch a slow but constant stream of delivery riders collecting their orders. Unlike multitudes of overrated stores, their fame is indeed well-deserved.
Somehow, any dish that doesn’t bear local origins finds itself constantly touted with this buzzword of authenticity, which many of us fall prey to. But not 233 Banh Mi, which instead presents a sincere study on all things banh mi—on a TV screen playing a slideshow of detailed ingredient descriptions, for the uninitiated likes of you and me.
A simple dish of banh mi gave me a delicious peek into Vietnamese culture, way more than what textbooks do. Food is indeed a conduit in learning about culture, and I’d receive such culinary education over their fresh sandwiches any day.
Expected damage: from S$5.50 for one banh mi
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Our Rating: 5 / 5
233 Banh Mi
216 Joo Chiat Road, #01-07, Singapore 427483
216 Joo Chiat Road, #01-07, Singapore 427483