Banh Mi, Oh My!

roasted pork bahn mi sandwichI am home! I am home! I am HOME!

I hope you noticed that Sup has been a little bit AWOL this past week. I was traveling. I wish I could say it was a vacation, but it was really mostly work stuff.

When these plans were made I had great hopes of posting from the road.  But, well one thing led to another BLAH, BLAH, BLAH. I am great at excuses aren’t I?

In case you didn’t know. I was in San Francisco. I met The Daily Spud there too. Spud is not just a fabulous blogger, but as I can now attest, a fabulous person as well.  We had a great lunch at Zuni Cafe. I also met all the cool kids at FoodBuzz. Talk about a plum job!

But most importantly, I also finally experienced a proper Vietnamese banh mi (pronounced BUN-mee) sandwich. I bought one for Spud too. Which is sorta funny because we had just had a long lunch but we could not help ourselves from stopping in at Saigon Sandwiches on the way back to our hotels. There’s nothing wrong with 2 lunches is there?

saigon sandwich shopNow, you may know this about me– but I can’t just eat something as delicious as a roasted pork banh mi and leave it at that. Nope. I need to find out all I can about the sandwich, and then pass that info along to you. It’s just how I am hard-wired. In fact I have a recipe for banh mi that I have adapted to SippitySup, which you can click to access.

Which brings me right back around to banh mi. I have never posted food on SippitySup that I did not make myself. In fact I usually try to not only cook the food, but write the recipe as well.

Today is an exception. This tasty sandwich was made by the busy bees at Saigon Sandwiches on Larkin near Eddy in San Francisco.

It’s quite a place. If you have never been there it could be a bit intimidating. 

The place is really not much more than a hole in the wall. There is one long counter, behind which they make the sandwiches. In front of the counter there is space for Vietnamese tid-bits and goodies. But these go mostly ignored because people seem to come for the sandwiches.

And come they do. I ate there 4 or 5 times in just a few days (and still spent less than 20 bucks). I also staked the place out several times and made sure I walked past it every time I could. 

You know what. There is always a line out the door. The line gets crazy long at lunchtime too; longer than I had the patience for. So I tended to go in the off-hours for a second lunch or a pre-dinner, or a post-breakfast, or an afternoon snack experience. There was still a line, but no more than 10 or 12 minutes.

Here is the strange part. When it’s time to order they take 6 orders all at once. Then you are expected to stay in line, in the same placement in which you ordered and wait for your sandwich. They don’t seem to write anything down so if you get out of order then you get someone else’s food! Everyone in line seems to know these rules, so despite the strange system it goes very smoothly.

On my first visit I made the mistake of ordering and then walking outside until my sandwich was ready. One woman in line actually gasped! I do not think they were so worried that my order would get screwed up as much as they were afraid they themselves would get the wrong sandwich. There is not much recourse for mixed up orders. Because no English is spoken beyond– Pork, Chicken, Fanci Por, Tofu, Everything, No Mayo and 3 Dolla. Because these are the only phrases you need to have a successful experience here. Well, “please” and “thank you” would be nice too.

In my multiple trips to Saigon Sandwiches I learned quite a bit about the place. By my last visit I even found myself gasping when some tourist walked in and tried to leave his place in line after ordering. 

I realize that there is a very good chance you have no idea what I am talking about. You may be thinking– “what is bahn mi and why has he been rambling on about it”?

Well, it’s a sandwich. If you never eaten a banh mi sandwich let me try and initiate you.

Imagine all your favorite tastes and textures squeezed between really good baguette slabs. This thing has all the crisp, cold, salty, crunchy, drippy, creamy, warmth of a classically appealing bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. But it does not stop there!

You also get the sweet undertones of garlic roasted pork butt, with the dusky notes of fermented anchovies. There is brightness and crunch from cilantro and carrots, plus a rush of coriander and screamingly spicy top-notes of jalapeno. There is an egg based mayo-like sauce that just marries all the flavors and glues all the ingredients to the super crunch of good baguette. Basically, it’s a sandwich of intensely earthy sweetness and tang.

I am probably understating just how great this sandwich is. But I think you get my drift!

Now you must be wondering how baguettes and aioli could be in anyway a part of Vietnamese cuisine. Well, of course the answer lies in the history of Vietnam. 

bahn mi ingredientsThe early part of the 20th century the French heavily colonized parts of Vietnam. Naturally (or un-naturally) they brought many of their food traditions with them. 

The early versions of banh mi resembled a traditionally minimal Parisian sandwich; baguette, aioli with ham or pate.

But as more and more of the Vietnamese began to adopt the sandwich, it went from simple and understated to a riotous tumult of adornments; and this sandwich was soon elevated from good to great.

I live in L.A. so I am sure I can find me a good banh mi someplace nearby. But that is not going to stop me from making bahn mi at home. In fact I have a recipe for a fairly traditional banh mi you can find here.

But in the greatest of Vietnamese bahn mi traditions I might soon adapt it to where I live and what ingredients I have locally. I wonder what a classically “Hollywood” banh mi would look like? Any ideas?


Greg Henry