Best burger, best burrito, best pizza — the potential food battles are endless, although “best tofu bánh mì” is not high on most people’s list of taste-offs. Unless you’re Olivia Davi and Luke Whitesides, a vegetarian couple who blind-tasted a few of these Vietnamese sandwiches a few weeks ago.
“We met in the pandemic and quickly took a liking to each other over a love of climbing and not eating animals,” said Davi, who came to Santa Barbara for college in 2009 and works in marketing at Toad&Co. Whitesides arrived three years ago to get his Masters from UCSB, and then started at Teladoc Health. They tell us more about themselves and their taste-off below.
Why did you become vegetarian?
Olivia Davi: Honestly, I hate this question. Anytime someone asks me, I like to respond with, “Why aren’t you?” It’s 2022. If you aren’t aware of the negative impact eating meat has on climate change, pollution, deforestation, and animal cruelty (and truly the list goes on), then you’re living under a rock, or worse, turning a blind eye to a problem that isn’t going to go away.
Luke Whitesides: After reading the book How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Greger, I learned of the many health benefits of vegetarianism and decided to change my diet about five years ago.
Is tofu bánh mì a popular dish?
OD: For as long as I’ve lived here, I’ve only seen bánh mì in smaller Vietnamese restaurants like Phamous Café. It’s certainly grown in popularity over the last five years or so, showing up in more popular, touristy spots like The Blue Owl and Rascal’s.
Why did you embark on this challenge?
OD: Dining out is an increasingly expensive practice. There’s nothing more disappointing than spending $30 on a meal and not liking what you get. I loved the tofu bánh mì at The Blue Owl, Rascal’s, and 4 Eggs & Pizza so much that I wanted to know which deserves those dollars most. I asked friends for other recommendations, which is how we heard about Phamous Café and Pho Bistro.
What was your process?
LW: We wanted to do a blind taste test to make it as unbiased as possible. Actually, we wanted to do a double-blind study to eliminate more bias, but logistically, we decided to settle for just a single blind study.
OD: We originally were hoping for a third party to pick the sandwiches up for us and feed them to us while we’re both blindfolded, but we landed on us splitting up the orders for pickup and taking turns being blindfolded.
I planned to pick up from the downtown locations (The Blue Owl, Rascal’s, and 4 Eggs & Pizza), and Luke was going to pick up from the Goleta locations (Pho Bistro and Phamous Café). Sadly, Rascal’s had removed their tofu bánh mì from the menu and Phamous Café was closed for maintenance, so they were unfortunately disqualified.
We decided this was purely a taste test, omitting any opinions on presentation and customer service. We looked for the quality of the baguette or bread; flavor of the sauces, veggies, and other ingredients; texture of the tofu; and initial impression.
Which place won and why?
OD: 4 Eggs & Pizza won by a mile. It was the best overall in traditional flavor, quality, and value. The veggies were crunchy and appropriately proportioned to the other ingredients. The sandwich hit on all fronts from sauce to tofu texture to the quality of the baguette. And it’s reasonably priced at $9.96.
Have you ever made them at home yourself?
LW: Yes, I made them once. Pickled the veggies myself and marinated the tofu overnight. I actually cut my finger pretty badly slicing the baguette, but everything else turned out great.
OD: I’m definitely biased, but I’d test who in town does the best vegetarian ramen. My top contender would be Santa Barbara Craft Ramen, but many others would argue for Nikka Ramen. It’s worth noting Nikka didn’t offer a vegetarian option until after S.B. Craft Ramen did. I personally feel like you can taste that theirs was an afterthought, whereas S.B. Craft Ramen put a lot of intention and flavor into their vegetarian offering.
LW: Not sure. Maybe ice cream?
4 Eggs & Pizza is located at 1221 State St. inside of Victoria Court. Call (805) 770-5996 or see 4eggsnpizza.com.