Denver is a low-key mecca for Vietnamese food. Little Saigon — a lovely stretch of South Federal that feels like a nearly endless corridor of pho restaurants and sandwich shops — is home to some of the best food in the city. While noodle soup is certainly great, banh mi — the convenient Vietnamese sandwich combining meat, jalapenos, pickled vegetables, cilantro and other herbs and a range of sauces — is equally essential staple of the cuisine. Fortunately, the city is home to a range of locations, each serving a distinct menu with an impressive variation.
New Saigon Bakery
Where: 640 South Federal Blvd., Denver.
Hours: Tuesday – Sunday 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. Closed on Monday.
Cost: $5 – 6.50
Lowdown: New Saigon and the neighboring New Saigon Bakery have long been some of the great pioneers of local Vietnamese cuisine. The bakery is chock full of a variety of snacks including spring rolls, fresh salads, shrimp chips, cookies and pastries — but it’s the sandwiches that consistently keep the lines long. Featuring many of the same flavors found in most banh mi joints — grilled and BBQ beef and pork, meatball, combination and rotisserie chicken — New Saigon shines largely due to the massive fresh baguettes and expert use of house-made garlic-butter mayo and fish sauce. The sandwiches are truly massive, providing an almost shocking bang for the buck.
Vinh Xuong Bakery
Where: 2370 West Alameda Ave., Denver; Zeppelin Station, 3501 Wazee St. Suite #100, Denver.
Hours: Vary by location
Cost: $5 – 10 depending on location.
Lowdown: Vinh Xuong is a true Denver institution. The first one opened more than 25 years ago by the Huynh family, with son and proprietor Duc Huynh handling much of the current operation with his sister Yen. Three locations — two neighboring spots around Little Saigon and the more recently opened outpost in Zeppelin Station — all serve sizeable renditions of the sandwich. More traditional offerings like meatball, BBQ pork and roast chicken are joined by vegetarian-friendly tofu and spicy avocado. Customers can opt-out of the baguette entirely, choosing either a wrap or a rice bowl as a vehicle for the flavorful combination of meat, cilantro, jalapenos, pickled vegetables, cucumber, mayo and soy. While the Zeppelin iteration mostly does sandwiches, both brick and mortar spots are full bakeries stocked with a variety of pastries and other snacks.
Where: 550 South Federal Blvd., Denver.
Hours: Wednesday – Monday 7 a.m. – 5 p.m. Closed on Tuesday.
Lowdown: Of all the top-notch locations to be found along South Federal’s Little Saigon, Baker’s Palace has remained something of a sleeper. The inconspicuous signage, lack of seating and proximity to the always-popular New Saigon has given the compact bakery something of an underdog status. However, the sandwiches are extraordinary and the over 30 boba options — including the healthy and otherwise hard to find pennywort elixir — are some of the best-prepared in the city. To make matters even better, sandwiches are $5 and a buy five get one free deal helps to solidify Palace as one of the best values on the already affordable list. The dac biet, or combination, comes with ham, pate, head cheese, steamed pork and BBQ pork.
Where: 211 East 7th Ave., Denver.
Hours: Sunday – Thursday 11 a.m. – 8 p.m., and Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Cost: $9 – 12
Lowdown: Brothers Rob and Lon McGowan opened Daikon almost two years ago in Governor’s Park. The modern, counter-service joint operates in a similar manner to Chipotle — patrons are encouraged to build highly customizable sandwiches and rice or quinoa bowls on the line. A handy banh mi diagram shows customers an easy visual for the range of ingredients — including cilantro, mint, Thai basil, pickled vegetables, fresh cucumbers and a variety of sauces — that make up the sandwich. Traditional ingredients like pork are joined by braised jackfruit, 36-hour brisket, lemongrass tofu, smoked salmon and umami mushroom. To make matters even less orthodox the restaurant offers sauces that include chimichurri and teriyaki on top of the more classic sambal, sweet chili and hoisin. The concept appears built for expansion, with a new location just having opened in Boulder.
Ba Le Sandwiches
Where: 1044 South Federal Blvd., Denver.
Hours: Monday – Friday 8 a.m. – 6 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Lowdown: For anyone unafraid of spice, Ba Le is the move. Each of the sandwiches seems to come with some of the freshest jalapenos money can buy, with crisp cilantro, pickled daikon and carrot providing a supplemental afterthought to the crunchy pepper. The sandwiches here are on the smaller side, so doubling up can be the best approach. Popular flavors like Vietnamese BBQ pork and Chinese BBQ pork are joined by the equally unmissable fried shrimp paste and sour pork meat. A fridge full of pates, head cheeses and pork rolls is also available for anyone interested in assembling the sandwiches at home. For dessert, the green tea waffle or boba both provide excellent palate cleansers.
Federal Bar and Grill
Where: 2544 Federal Blvd, Denver.
Hours: Monday and Tuesday 11 a.m. – 12 a.m., Wednesday – Friday 10 a.m. – 12 a.m., and Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. – 12 a.m.
Lowdown: Banh mi has been increasingly becoming a standard outside of Vietnamese restaurants. Federal Bar and Grill — a neighborhood staple since 2013 — serves a fabulous rendition that downplays the funk, serving the sandwich with Asian slaw and sriracha mayo. While the rendition certainly swings pretty far from the conventional recipe, the result is still delicious. The hefty plate of fries helps to augment the meal, especially when devoured with one of the location’s many house-made sauces.
Where: 5055 West 72nd Ave Unit D, Westminster.
Hours: Every day 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Lowdown: With so many great banh mi being available in the city, it could seem ludicrous to travel all the way to Westminster for the sake of a sandwich. Faifo is worth it. Three options — grilled chicken, grilled pork and grilled beef — are beautifully prepared and served with just the right amount of crunchy pickled veggies and sauce. The stylish restaurant serves a full menu of Vietnamese classics — including pho, rice plates, vermicelli noodle plates, stir fry and crepes. The restaurant’s interior is a superb blend of exposed brick, overlain with art by one of the employees Thien-Kim, who does beautiful depictions of Vietnamese village life. To make matters all the better, the place serves spiked boba smoothies ($8).