In Hanoi, where copyright laws are laxer than in San Francisco, success and unauthorized cloning go hand in hand. The moment Lucky Hotel gets a good mention in the Lonely Planet guide, five more Lucky Hotels appear, some on the same block. The first hotel will put up an "Original Lucky Hotel" sign, which will then be copied by the copycats.
Did Cafe Bunn Mi, which opened last week in the Richmond, pull a similar stunt with Bun Mee, Denise Tran's 4-month-old Pacific Heights sandwich shop? Both sell upscale ($5-8), Westerner-friendly banh mi, along with salads and a few more substantial dishes. More importantly, whose phonetically spelled sandwiches are better?
Though the sulfurous reek of just-peeled radish permeates Cafe Bunn Mi, the cafe's sandwiches don't seem to contain any pickled daikon. Instead, they have colorful shredded carrots and red and green cabbage, with a few jalapeno slivers snuck in underneath. The vegetables aren't pickled, and the lack of acidity disrupts the tart-sweet-herbaceous trifecta that makes banh mi so compelling.
With Cafe Bunn Mi's pork belly sandwich, where slabs of too-fatty pork, braised with soy and star anise, are layered with soy-marinated eggs and shredded vegetables, the lack of acidity is a huge problem (also a problem: dense, not-hot-enough French rolls). The fish sandwich, though, centers on deep-fried sole so tender, coated in batter so light and crisp that the sweet mayo and cilantro, shot through with the occasional buzzy bit of green chile, make enough of a frame to turn it into a good sandwich.
While Cafe Bunn Mi's decor is an improvement on Saigon Sandwich's (even after the latter's Health Department-dictated remodel), Bun Mee shows the work of an actual architect. I went to the photogenic shop shortly after it opened, and found the sandwiches pallid for the price -- banh mi painted in inoffensive pastels. But a few months later, most of my concerns have been corrected.
For one, the cooks have gotten the bread right: So warm, so light, the roll starts sloughing off brittle crumbs the moment it comes out of the wrapper. The bread is a texture, not a flavor to distract from the fillings.
And the cooks stuff the sandwich with the right proportion of cilantro, long strands of pickled vegetables, and a few green chiles hot enough to leave me feeling like my lips had welts on them. (This is not a criticism, mind you.) Tran's turmeric-scented fried catfish recalls both cha ca and Louisiana, where she grew up. It doesn't have the presence of the more thickly battered sole from Cafe Bunn Mi's sandwich, but its flavor is haunting. Like my favorite ($4) Vietnamese sandwiches, the catfish banh mi inspires its eater to finish the thing before its contents soften and deflate.
Advantage: Bun Mee.
Bun Mee: 2015 Fillmore (at Pine), 800-7696.
Cafe Bunn Mi: 417 Clement (at Fifth Ave.), 668-8908.