May 1, 2004
Everywhere I turn Vietnamese sandwiches are popping up all over and I couldn't be happier. Growing up, we'd get the grilled pork sandwiches from this small Vietnamese cafe, Givral's, in Houston every weekend when we went Chinese grocery shopping. They were so good my Dad and I would fight over any extra sandwiches that were left over. My uncle, who is partly Vietnamese, likes them so much whenever he comes to Houston he always takes back a dozen of these sandwiches back with him to Florida on the plane. To this day, when I go to Houston to visit my parents, my Mom always brings me a Vietnamese sandwich when she goes grocery shopping. I consider them a comfort food of sorts and for the longest time I had no idea what they were called. When we'd buy them from the shop we always referred to them as Kao Rou Mian Bao in Chinese, which translates into "grilled meat bread" (or sandwich). The wall menu at Givral's called it a "BBQ Fajita" sandwich in English which was of no help. It wasn't until recently that I learned the delicious things were called Banh Mi. Banh Mi basically means "bread" in Vietnamese and refers to the soft, crispy baguettes of French origin that the sandwiches are made with. What makes Banh Mi different from a regular French bread is rice flour is used in the dough which makes the final baguette lighter and have an airier crumb. You'll notice when biting into a Banh Mi that they have a very light and crispy crust that contrasts so nicely with the warm inside that is softer than any French baguette you'll ever have. A lot of Vietnamese grocery stores will have true Banh Mi in their bakery sections and they are cheap! If they have been sitting out all day, they are still just as good if you take them home and warm them up in the oven. To this day I can't eat a regular French baguette without wishing I had a Banh Mi in my hands instead. If the Asians didn't invent the French baguette they sure as hell know how to perfect on it.
One of my regular dining spots here in Austin, Pho Cong Ly on Research, just recently added Banh Mi to their menu. They have one of the best bowls of Pho in Austin, and I have to say their grilled pork Banh Mi is pretty damn good too (I've had many Banh Mi from different places that aren't quite as good). Another place in Austin that I read has really great Banh Mi is Tam Deli and Cafe on North Lamar that I have yet to try. There are different kinds of Vietnamese sandwiches but the grilled pork Banh Mi, pictured above, have marinated, grilled slices of pork, julienned carrots and daikon marinated in vinegar and sugar, cilantro, cucumber and thin slices of fresh jalapeńo. All of this yummy goodness is sandwiched inside of a fresh Vietnamese baguette that is slathered with some sort of homemade mayonnaise or butter concoction that, to this day, I have no idea what it really is. It has the consistency of mayonnaise and the color of butter, but doesn't taste like either one. Any restaurant that serves Banh Mi that I've asked have always told me that it was "butter". It definitely is some kind of fat or oil-based emulsion. Whatever it is, it adds just the right amount of zip to the sandwich. Jenny tried the grilled chicken Banh Mi, which is exactly the same except with chicken instead of pork, and said it was excellent as well. Other versions of Banh Mi have cold slices of ham loaf and pate sandwiched in the same bread and with the the same fresh vegetables and fish sauce. I've never tried one of the pate Banh Mi because I cannot ignore the siren call of the grilled pork Banh Mi, but I plan to one day soon.
The best thing about Banh Mi is that they are cheap. I've never come across a Banh Mi over $2.75 unless it was at one of those Americanized gourmet sandwich shops and delis (almost $6!) that serve their own versions of Vietnamese sandwiches that for some reason never really taste right. Maybe the secret is in the mayo concoction and maybe that's why every Vietnamese establishment tells their customers it's "butter" whenever anyone asks. The atmosphere at a gourmet deli may be nicer though I think I prefer the smaller price tag and any place that uses a secret ingredient, but that's just me.Posted by yi at May 1, 2004 4:59 PM