Banh Mi Dish Duel: Bun Mee vs. Cafe Bunn Mi

Categories: Dish Duel
Jonathan Kauffman
Cafe Bunn Mi's sole sandwich: Not the same as Bun Mee's.
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.

Jonathan Kauffman
Bun Mee's crispy catfish sandwich, $7.95.
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.

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Location Info



Cafe Bunn Mi

417 Clement, San Francisco, CA

Category: Restaurant

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I'm sorry, what?  "sulfurous reek of just-peeled radish permeates Cafe Bunn Mi".  I've gone to Cafe Bunn Mi in the Richmond several times now and never once anything slightly amiss in the olfactory - or any other - dept.  I love nothing more than a good faceoff, and can't weigh in on the competitor as I have not yet gone there.  But while Bun Mee gets kudos for improving since the reviewer's first visit right after opening, they compare it to Cafe Bunn Mi what, a week after it opened?  Obviously interior decoration is pretty critical to this reviewer - if you are going to "appeal to Westerners" you'd better engage an "actual architect".    I never respond to these kind of things but this just doesn't seem objective, and I value that in a restaurant reviewer. 


Not sure what canibus laden sandwiches the author was eating at Bun Mee, but Bunn Mi wins hands down. I can't comment on the catfish sandwich at Bun Mee, but their basic pork sandwich was lacking in many ways - under seasoned, barely any vegetables and no fish sauce. How can you have a banh mi without fish sauce?!

I've been to Bunn Mi numerous times and all of their banh mi's are - more affordable, have a healthy amount of vegetables, use fish sauce and just taste better.

Paige McCall
Paige McCall

I've tried both Bunn Mi and Bun Mee on multiple occasions, and actually prefer Bunn Mi's. The grilled pork banh mi at Bun Mee is far superior. Also, to claim that the price points are the same is just plain incorrect. Bun Mee's crispy catfish is $7.95 and Bunn Mi's is $5. That's over 50% difference in price. I'm not saying Bun Mee is bad, I just think you pay for the cutesy interior and high Pacific Heights rent more than you do the quality of food.

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