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Comments by YACCS
Friday, August 18, 2006

Bahn mi

An occasional series on sandwiches off the beaten path. This is about the Bahn Mi, a Vietnamese sandwich sold around the city. I've never had one, but this interested me, so it's here

Banh You? Bánh mì!

No matter how “real” you keep it, presentation counts. This is especially true with food. If I had long ago told Ms. Slab
“Here, have some pickle-cilantro sandwich. With hot sauce and three mystery meats. And extra Mayo, that sh*t is good, yo.”
she probably would’ve pointed the remote at me to try and change the channel. But here’s how I really got her hooked on the Banh Mi:
“You probably don’t want this, it has three types of pork each more delicious than the last. And a bunch of fresh, crisp, slimming veggies with beta carotene and whatever it is that makes Oil of Olay good for your skin. I’d let you try some, but it’ll party in your mouth, and I know you already partied too hard at breakfast with Farmer Jones and that Jimmy Dean kid.”
You see the technique? Start with reverse psychology; introduce the concept of flavor layers; add a dollop of balance; make stuff up about health and fitness; and end with a little guilt.

Bingo. Ms. Slab bit, and the rest is history. Since then we have savored many fine Banh Mi excursions together... as well we should. After all, a really good Banh Mi is something you long to revisit.

But what excatly is it? A tasty Vietnamese Sandwich, the words bánh and translate literally as cake [of] wheat. The standard handheld model has roast pork, paté, and “pork roll” (which can run the range from ham to spam, or bologna to head cheese); shredded daikon and carrot pickle; fresh cilantro; fresh chiles; hot sauce, fish sauce, and mayonnaise, all served on a hot toasted baguette.

In Vietnam some say they use a baguette made with rice flour, but regular French-style rolls are the norm in New York. One dictionary translates ô bánh mì as a loaf of bread and it’s true, they can come unstuffed with a dipping curry or stew (like Malaysian roti). But no matter the style, Banh Mi are traditionally eaten at breakfast (like the Irish McGriddle).

I first caught Banh Mi fever almost a decade ago, and it remains one of my favorite sandwiches. The sum is far tastier than the parts could ever suggest. When it works, this unique flavor combination does wonders for my mood and self-esteem. Eat one and you'll feel 30 pounds lighter and 20 pounds smarter. This is doubly true (60/40) in the summer: the cool veggies and sliced chiles make it as refreshing as anything with three meats can be.

Before setting out to try one, let me clue you in on the most important rule: eat it fresh.

A gimongous portion of this sandwich’s appeal lies in its balancing act. The best versions have clear, contrasting flavors (cool/spicy, salty/sweet, rich meat/fresh veggies) and textures (toasty/chewy, crispy/creamy). The bread should be toasted on the spot, the meats added first, and the veggies last.

Dive in quick and you'll be singing like a freaky Canadian on Canada Day. But wait too long to eat, and you’ll be left to rue a lukewarm blob that could’ve been a great sandwich. For this reason and this reason alone, if you have narcolepsy please consider a different lunch option.

Time: Not On Your Side
Note the differences in texture, appearance, and edibility
between a freshly-made Banh Mi (Left), and one
that has been neglected for one hour or more (Right).

Most spots serve several varieties of Banh Mi. Standard fillings include grilled pork, meatballs, sardines, or chicken. This is all well and good, but The Porkchop Express likes to keep things old school. We stuck to the classic “roast pork” formula, and asked for "spicy" (which should include hot sauce and fresh chile slices). Please bear in mind that our patent-pending NASA-tested 5-Earl©®™ ratings scale reflects our assessment of only this version.

s chance would have it, that’s also how I spent last week. The result? Another installment of The Quest for the Best Banh Mi in New York City, a sequel even more eye-shattering than the original. I sampled both the best and (I hope) worst thus far, and learned three things in the process:

1) Nobody knows who invented the Banh Mi, or if they do they aren’t letting on. Is this what people mean when they say “the world changed after 9/11”? These days, it's hard to get straight answers about a sandwich. Someone confirmed the obvious hunch (French colonialists introduced the baguette to Indochine, and the Vietnamese added their own ingredients). But no one dared guess when this culinary lightning bolt first struck.

2) The two oldest Banh Mi merchants in New York went on record to state that they use the same baguettes in Vietnam. In other words, and contrary to last week's rumor, no rice flour in the mix. Another tidbit from the motherland? Individual-sized Banh Mi are often sliced to order from very long loaves.

3) The United Nations is no help. In uncovering the mysteries of international sandwiches, that is. Don’t get me wrong, I'm all for global peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance. But when it comes to sandwiches, these folks are pretty tight-lipped. Or so it seemed when I called the Permanent Mission of Vietnam to the U.N.

The woman who answered the phone thought I dialed the wrong number. We went back and forth (her: “no, we don’t sell sandwiches, I’m sorry”; me: “yes, but you have eaten sandwiches… in Vietnam, right?”). This was a lose-lose battle: suspicion, mistrust, and mild animosity set in almost immediately. The Secretary at the Permanent Mission of Vietnam thought I was a moron, and I thought she was hiding something.

She transferred me to a colleague one rung up the bureaucratic ladder. I broke down my Banh Mi mission and asked him a few questions. His response? Succinct: “don’t know, don’t care, and don’t have the time.”

I’m convinced the guy said this with a Banh Mi in each hand, and one in his desk drawer. I’ll take it a step further: I now believe his phone receiver was a Banh Mi, as was every doorknob and handrail in the office. They probably have a jazz quintet to greet dignitaries with instruments—drumsticks, vibraphone, trumpet, sax, and upright bass—made entirely of Banh Mi. I bet that guy does nothing all day except close his eyes, twirl, and bite, catching delicious Banh Mi flavors with every clamp of the jaw… because at the Permanent Mission of Vietnam to the U.N., Banh Mi fall from ceilings and spring from fountains.

Either way, sometimes the only course of action is to admit defeat. Such was my case: I had been bested by two diplomats, pros at the top of their game. As I set the phone down, a mixture of frustration and genuine admiration welled within. They withstood my toughest interrogation, and successfully guarded the secrets of the Banh Mi.

Well-played, emissaries of Vietnam. Well-played.

Down but not out, The Porkchop Express did the only thing that made sense: hit the road, combing the city for more Banh Mi tastings. Results below!

This is it, patient reader: the end of the Banh Mi line. It was a great run filled with dizzying highs, woeful lows, and delicious BBQ-stuffed paté-primed baguettes. But all good things must end, even at The Porkchop Express, and we wanted to close this chapter with a bang. An informative bang. So here are some helpful tidbits to keep you game-tight.

What Makes a Good Banh Mi?
  1. Good centerpiece. This holds true for whatever they stuff inside: nem nủớng (roast pork), cá mòi (sardines), (chicken), et al. The sandwich gets funk in its trunk from the main ingredient; as it goes, so goes your Banh Mi.
  2. Minimal gnarly meats. Banh Mi makers can sometimes overdo it with pork roll, bologna, pig-belly “ham,” fatback, head cheese, and all sorts of opaque, globular, loafish concoctions. This may help lube the lower intestine, but flavor-wise, a little goes a long way.
  3. Not-too-sweet pickles. It's no secret: a good Banh Mi is all about balance. Shredded daikon and carrot pickle should be sharp, sweet and sour, to compliment the meat. Lazy renditions taste like they were soaked in sugar water which, in addition to tasting gross, also turns mayo into corn syrup.
  4. Fresh Accoutrements. Like cilantro. And crisp chili slices. And firm cucumber wedges. This should be a no-brainer, considering how essential the element of crunch is to a delicious Banh Mi attack. But some sandwich makers are suspect produce pickers. Cheapos have even been known to skip the chilies entirely, instead doubling up on sriracha sauce.
  5. Fresh toasted bread. Ironically, nothing beats me down like a limp, soggy loaf. And in the 21st century, there’s really no excuse for not knowing how to work a toaster. The Banh Mi starts with the baguette, and it's gotta be hot and crusty but not too dry, able to cradle the ingredients without collapsing under pressure.
Where can I find the best Banh Mi in New York?
  • In Brooklyn, our vote goes to Ba Xuyên. Great selection, consistent quality, and delicious sandwiches make this an establishment worth visiting.
  • Our overall favorite was Manhattan's finest, Bánh Mì Saigon Bakery. The city's second-oldest Banh Mi merchant, they keep it simple (with two sandwiches) and... simply delicious. Hands-down the best roast BBQ in town.
I don't speak Vietnamese. Does that matter?
  • Not if you grab our handy wallet-sized reference card (below).

And on that note... we're serving up 3 final exposés on the oldest, the newest, and the most expensive Banh Mi joints in NYC. Take a gander, and stay tuned. Porkier pastures await!

posted by Steve @ 1:36:00 AM

1:36:00 AM

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