Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Banh Mi in NYC

Banh mi is quickly emerging as the new trendy lunchtime choice for food enthusiasts across the country. Banh mi is a  classic street-vendor Vietnamese-French sandwich that features thinly sliced pickled carrots and daikon (oriental raddish), cucumbers, cilantro, chili peppers, pâté, mayonnaise and a seasoned meat (usually pork) on a fresh baguette. Theses exotic ingredients are a welcome departure from the typical lettuce, tomato, and onion combo found at most sandwich shops, and as strange as they may seem actually combine to create a uniquely good sandwich. 

Much like institutional oppression, forced labor, and the pillaging of natural resources, banh mi was a byproduct of French colonialism. As the French Indochina Empire expanded during the turn of the century so did the reach of French cuisine. (I had often wondered why a Vietnamese sandwich was served on French bread) Prior to France's withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1950's, a banh mi was called a 'French sandwich' and consisted of french baguettes and costly imported butter, cornichons, pate, and ham. Needless to say the sandwich was out of the price range of most Vietnamese, but by the time the French left, the locals had substituted several Asian ingredients to align with their tastes and bring down costs. Cilantro was added to appeal to the Asian palette and pickled carrots and daikon replaced the costly cornichons. Thankfully the baguette survived the transition.

BBQ Chicken: Pickled Daikon, Cilantro, Cucumber, Garlic Aoli
On a recent trip to New York, we stopped by Baoguette in Murry Hill, one of the city's best bahn mi joints. It's a tiny bare bones shop featuring a small counter with a handful of stools. This place must look like a Japanese subway car during the lunch rush. The taste of Baoguette's sandwiches are inversely proportional to size of the humble store. The baguette was as good as any you'd find in a fancy French bakery, representing the perfect combination of a crunchy crust and soft doughy innards. Getting the roll right is half the battle in making any good sandwich. The pickles and cilantro were pretty standard as far as banh mi is concerned and the meat (I ordered the pork) was perfectly seasoned.

I chose to go for the optional spice sauce which I regret because the heat overpowered the subtitles of the pickled vegetables and seasonings. Plus I'm getting too old to be eating sauce that hot for no good reason. The $6 sandwiches were more than enough to fill our stomachs and put a dent in our hangovers.

For those of you in the DC metro area in search of a banh mi you are in luck. Virginia has the 5th highest concentration of Vietnamese in the country and the Eden Center in Falls Church features 8 stores that serve banh mi. Ritchie, our resident banh mi expert, says his two favorite bahn mis comes from the Eden Center. I recommend Nuh Lan and Song Que. Also, there is the Rebel Heros food truck making stops throughout the area. For those of you who live elsewhere, search out your local Vietnamese grocery and grab a banh mi, it's worth the trip.

The Classic: Pork, Terine, Pate, Fresh Herbs.

Baoguette on Urbanspoon

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