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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

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.

So without further ado, we present Part 1 of the Quest for the Best Banh Mi.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

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Blogger lettuce said...

This sounds fabulous. London has more Vietnamese restaurants than it used to, I must try and search this out.

The cilantro looks like fresh coriander - is it the same/similar? yum.

Chocolate truffle cake butties? hmmm. Well almost anything can be put in a buttie - including chips of course, and most classically - and I have eaten sugar (raw muscovado) butties. But never a chocolate truffle cake buttie.

In Scotland they would probably serve such a delicacy deep fried.

3:43 PM  
Blogger Melissa said...

Thank you thank you thank you!!! This is a fabulous survey and more importantly, has current info. I'm sure glad I didn't trek out to Brooklyn with a hungry stomach only to find An Dong RIP--sad!

12:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to know if the Viet sandwich thing has hit in the UK - post back! Here it's in sandwich shops, not Viet restaurants.
Cilantro is indeed the exact same thing as coriander, btw. In the US, 'cilantro' is how it's refered to when fresh, and 'coriander' for the dried seeds

1:03 PM  

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