The Ever-Morphing Banh Mi

The first time I had banh mi was in a California strip mall, in a shop between a burrito joint that smelled like dirty steam and a secondhand porno store that never opened (I lived close by). That gateway banh mi was intense and surprising with its shattering roll, tangy shock of carrots and daikon, and jalapeño burn. To be honest, the roasted pork and paté seemed a little sketchy, but I thought that only added to the thrill of the new.

Chefs love eating banh mi because they have vivid flavors and startling textures, and also because they’re cheap (news flash: cooks make crappy money). And what chefs like eating, they like making. These days, chefs who cook in fancy neighborhoods far from the kind of strip malls where you can get a $1.50 sandwich are putting them on their menus. They’re making banh mi fancy, or at least turning them into vehicles for ingredients no traditional Viet sandwich maker would ever think of wedging into a roll.

KEEPING IT REAL
On CHOW’s Boston discussion board last month, Chowhounds wondered whether upscale banh mi even have a right to the name. Is the tea-smoked-duck banh mi with pickled Asian pear, frisée, and black bean vinaigrette at South End’s Myers + Chang really a banh mi? As one Chowhound put it, “since when did ‘banh mi’ become ‘sandwich with Asian filling?’”

That question nags Denise Tran, owner of San Francisco’s year-old Bun Mee, but only a little. Tran’s sandwich shop is in Pacific Heights, a part of town where you can score a $35 tube of moisturizer at the Kiehl’s store. Tran, who grew up in a Vietnamese-American family in New Orleans, calls her place a “fusion Asian sandwich shop.”

Fusion rules in a sandwich Tran calls the Sloppy Bun, a heap of beef marinated with red curry, then ground and cooked, heaped on a Viet-style roll with garlic mayonnaise and a banh mi's pickled vegetables. Tran says it represents a collage of her own early food experiences. “I grew up with Sloppy Joes, along with the gamut of very traditional Vietnamese food.”

BREAKOUT BANH
The $6.25 Sloppy Bun is far from the $9 tea-smoked-duck-and-pickled-Asian-pear banh mi in Boston, but neither is it the paper-wrapped, rubber-banded $1.50 banh mi from Little Saigon. But it represents something happening in America right now: the birth of an entirely new kind of sandwich that borrows from banh mi but is breaking out of the narrow mold of one.

Me, I like what’s happening at another San Francisco sandwich shop, Pal’s Takeaway, across town in the Mission. Once or twice a month, owner Jeff Mason makes fairly traditional banh mi, with jalapeño, pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, and cilantro, with some form of pork or chicken. Other times, Mason's short lunch menu lists something called Aunt Malai’s Lao Sausage Sandwich, pictured above. Mason buys sausage from a Lao restaurant in East Oakland—it’s garlicky and spicy, and smells like lemongrass and lime leaves.

Over the couple of years I’ve eaten it, this sandwich has morphed from a sort of traditional banh mi (pickled vegetables, chiles and cilantro, and, of course, the sausage) to sort of not. The latest version of Mason's Lao Sausage Sandwich had wisps of cucumber and arugula—a ruffle of fresh ingredients that seemed clearly inspired by traditional banh mi—and soy-flavored mayonnaise. You’d never think of it as anything remotely connected to banh mi, unless you’d seen this sandwich morph. It’s been fun to watch, and almost as surprising as that first bite of my original strip-mall banh.

Photo by Christopher Rochelle / CHOW.com

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