The Patriotic Banh Mi

We Americans love sandwiches. Forget the melting pot or the mixing bowl, nothing more epitomizes America’s indulgent appetite or desire for mobility than the sandwich.  They are more than the sum of their parts.  They are instantly recognizable and are infinitely variable.

Our most famous sandwiches have international roots.  Hamburgers and hot dogs are from Germany.  Italian-Americans perfected subs and Jews gave us corned beef on rye.  Here in Tampa, we have the Cuban sandwich, and St. Pete Beach arguably gave tourists the non-ethnic grouper sandwich (if you can find grouper at all).

Our friends from Vietnam have a unique contribution for America’s vaunted sandwich canon: the banh mi.  For all the suffering the French caused in Indochina, the Vietnamese recognized the value of baguettes, pate, and mayonnaise.

Starting with a split baguette, a banh mi can feature a variety of meats, including cold cuts, pate, grilled pork, chicken, tofu, head cheese and more.  Condiments are fairly stable: onion, cucumber, jalapenos, cilantro, pickled and julienne carrots and daikon radish, and if desired, mayonnaise.  The confluence of flavors and textures makes for a dining experience that is spicy, crunchy, savory, cool, and comforting all at once.

Best of all, banh mi fulfills the sandwich’s unspoken mission:   It is fast, tasty, and cheap.  Asian restaurants and groceries across the country churn out these delights every day, but the banh mi has yet to break through in the Tampa Bay area.

There have been several good articles about the sandwich lately that piqued my curiosity.  My first banh miwas at Saigon Deli in Tampa (read CL's review of the place), and my expectations ran very high.  But the vibe at the deli was so laid back, humble, and focused on food that I immediately had a good feeling about the place.  Attached to a mid-sized Asian grocery, Saigon Deli is run by one Mr. Lee.  His brother in law runs the grocery.

The menu is simple soups and entrees, and there are pre-made snacks all along the counter such as fresh rolls, cold cut snacks, and steamed buns.  The hot line tempts with steaming specials.  The pho soup ($7) is a fine choice with a variety of options available.  The typical sliced beef version is quite nice, with the full complement of condiments (thai basil, jalapenos, bean sprouts, and even fresh culantro, a slightly more pungent cousin to cilantro) available.

Steering clear of the pate and headcheese for the moment, I was thrilled with the grilled pork banh mi ($3).  The bright-flavored condiments, sweet and smoky grilled Chinese style-pork, and fiery jalapenos do an amazing dance on the palate, all moderated by the substantial roll.  (Mr. Lee sources the hoagie rolls from Publix.  They aren’t baguette, but they work nonetheless.)   My finding such a great sandwich was only dampened by Saigon Deli’s hours: Mr. Lee closes shop at 5 daily.  I found myself rushing from late appointments to get there in time for a couple sandwiches to go.  I ate there every weekend or so for a couple months.  Clearly, my affair with banh mi was not likely to fizzle out.

I resolved to make my own banh mi so I could play with its components more carefully.  I already had plans to throw a party for my closest friends during Memorial Day weekend.  A confidante thought that the holiday called for more patriotic “American” food.  I thought about what my late father, weakened by Agent Orange in Vietnam, would have said.  He would have eaten at least three sandwiches with his American pride intact.  Besides, I wanted to cook something special and share the delights of the banh mi with the uninitiated.

Putting together a respectable banh mi is not very difficult.  Most of the ingredients are fresh and easy to buy.  I opted for the grilled pork banh mi I loved so much.  I took a short cut by getting a couple containers of the pickled carrot and daikon from Mr. Lee.  I also bought a base for a grilled pork paste to marinate the Boston butt roasts I chose for the meat.

First, I hacked the roasts into large hunks and trimmed them of excess fat, then marinated them in bags with the paste and a little fish sauce.  A simple turn on the grill turned out beautifully caramelized pork with sweet Chinese flavor.  Friends helped slice the onions, cucumbers, jalapenos, and cilantro for serving.  The line to get a sandwich snaked out into my backyard.  A simple and spicy coconut and vegetable Thai Yum soup provided more edible entertainment.   Friends brought an array of appetizers and desserts to round out the meal, and we played records late into the night.

Too bad Dad couldn’t make it.  He would have loved a few loaded banh mi on Memorial Day.  He had an American appetite, after all.