Eat Street. Cheap.

WHITTIER — Right smack dab in the middle of Eat Street, Southwest’s mile-long multi-ethnic food court, is a McDonald’s.

It’s a wonder anyone would stop under the Golden Arches when there are so many enticing options in either direction down Nicollet Avenue, but fast food joints flourish everywhere for the same reasons. The food is fast, of course, as well as cheap and reassuringly predictable.

Eat Street has its own version of the extra-value meal that is both fast and cheap but eschews the bland predictability of ground beef: banh mi.

Luke Truong, who works the counter at Jasmine Deli, 2532 Nicollet Ave., said the tasty sandwich is Vietnam’s answer to the drive-through hamburger.

“[Banh mi are] quick and filling, just like McDonald’s fast food,” Truong said, “but the way we make it is healthy.”

Typically priced under $3 or $4 and ready in minutes — if not seconds — they are Vietnam’s gift to the diner strapped for time or cash. Most of the half-dozen or more small Vietnamese restaurants on Eat Street have one or more banh mi on their menu, often wrapped and ready for takeout.

The fixings for banh mi are fairly standard: pickled carrot and radish, a slice of cucumber, several sprigs of cilantro, jalapeno slices and mayonnaise. It makes of the perfect blending of sweet, sour and spicy flavors, served up on a crispy baguette.

As Truong explained, the sandwich reflects the influence of French culture on Vietnamese cuisine. In addition to the mayo and baguette, the traditional cold-cut banh mi typically features a slice of headcheese and a schmear of pâté.

Truong said his American customers prefer the grilled pork, chicken and beef banh mi ($2.95-–$3.25). The mock duck banh mi is a hit with vegetarians.What makes banh mi so good?

“Everything needs to be fresh,” Truong said. As he spoke, a pile of banh mi, made within the hour and wrapped in white paper, was quickly disappearing out the door.

Further down the street, Quang Pastry & Deli, 2719 Nicollet Ave., has a stack of cold-cut banh mi ($2.25) waiting for the lunch crowd. They have a rich, meaty flavor and subtle spices.

Opposite Quang is Lu’s Sandwiches, 2718 Nicollet Ave. S., where six types of banh mi are made-to-order, including barbeque beef, ground pork and vegetable sandwiches (all  $2.50).

But the banh mi selections don’t stop there. The lunchtime adventurer could eat banh mi from a different Eat Street restaurant every day of the week, if he wanted to.

At three bucks a pop, why not?