Banh Mi for Beginners

Bánh Mì Thit Nuong (Vietnamese Barbecued-Pork Sandwich)

I’m normally not in the habit of eating two lunches, however much the idea might secretly appeal to me, which is why the decision I was faced with one sunny summer day in Seattle was so agonizing.

The decision might have not had to be made at all if I’d had more time on my hands, but like always when I’m home, I have too much to do and not enough time to do it in, and in this case I had one afternoon left in Seattle and two places on my list for lunch. Tempting me from one side was the opinion of nearly the entire food world that no trip to the Emerald City is complete without a meal at the famed Italian restaurant-cum-sandwich shop Salumi; on the other, however, was a lone newspaper review of an obscure Vietnamese joint called the Seattle Deli. For many the decision might have seemed obvious – where else can you get a sandwich made by Mario Batali‘s father, chock-full of artisan pork he’s lovingly cured himself? The problem was that one of my goals on this particular trip was to hunt down one of the elusive Vietnamese sandwiches called bánh mì I had been reading so much about, and this day was my last chance to do it. To be honest, I didn’t even know anything about bánh mìs apart from the fact that everyone adores them, but as luck would have it, in the free Seattle Weekly paper I picked up there was a recommendation for this deli in the International District (Seattle’s Asian epicenter) which makes “the best bánh mì for beginners.” Since that obviously applied to me, it seemed like a pretty foolish recommendation to pass up. But considering that I possess only one stomach, I had to choose, and after much deliberation, weighing of the variables and rationalizing (I’m a Libra, don’t forget), I settled on Salumi, for the simple reason that it was closer to the ferry I would be taking into downtown Seattle, and I wasn’t at all sure I could make it out to the International District before collapsing with hunger.

I arrived at Salumi at five minutes to twelve – plenty early enough to beat the business-lunch crowd, or so I thought – and found a line already extending halfway down the block. Shrugging my shoulders, I joined the line – just ahead of a large family from Baltimore, whose constant bickering kept me entertained for the next 25 minutes as we slowly snaked our way along the sidewalk and into the tiny, closet-like restaurant. The upside was that I had plenty of time to figure out what I wanted (Libra, remember?), as I shamelessly peered into the hands of everyone who had to squeeze back past me on their way out. The thick, rustic salami sandwiches looked good, but when somebody passed me with a baguette dripping glistening juices and emitting the most unbelievable aroma of rosemary and garlic, I knew what I was having. When I finally made it to the counter, I ordered a porchetta sandwich, and left Salumi cradling a massive slab of crusty bread piled to bursting with moist pork shreds, onions and peppers, which I unwrapped with all the elegance of a starving hyena and began to devour, right there, standing on the sidewalk. It was delicious, full of deep, comforting flavors, and as I chewed I congratulated myself on my choice, secretly relieved that I wouldn’t have to brave the bánh mì experience quite yet, particularly as that line “for beginners” kept repeating in my head like a warning. What could possibly be so hard about ordering a sandwich that different levels of expertise were required?

I was about halfway through the mammoth porchetta sandwich, my hands and chin covered in slippery pork juice, when I realized I was no longer standing in front of Salumi. I had been so focused on my sandwich I hadn’t realized that I had started walking east – not the direction I had intended to go – and was now deep inside the International District, surrounded by businesses advertising their services in  Chinese first and English second. “I’ll just take a look around,” I told myself, continuing to chew on my sandwich as I perused the offerings of Asian produce markets and admired the plastic facsimiles of dishes in the windows of hole-in-the-wall restaurants. After what seemed like an eternity of chewing, I finally finished my messy, belly-stretching sandwich, cleaned myself up the best I could with the two measly napkins provided, and took my bearings. I was at a busy intersection a few blocks east of the freeway overpass, and as I examined shop fronts I realized the Chinese characters had been replaced with the slightly more familiar Latin alphabet, albeit with lots of strange accents, circumflexes and tildes. I had somehow stumbled into Little Saigon, I realized, and stranger still, beckoning from just across the street from where I stood was the Seattle Deli. Could this be fate at work?

Not one to ignore fate (no matter how stuffed), I crossed the street and peered in the window. All I could see was people pressed up against it on the other side. “I’ll just step in and take a quick look,” I told myself, “and if those sandwiches look good maybe I’ll buy one to take home.” I gingerly opened the door and stepped inside, into the space described as “spacious, bright and well-organized” by that Seattle Weekly article, and found instead a seething mass of people, both Asian and non, packed six deep around a small deli counter. There was no apparent order to the chaos and no line to join, so I hung back near the door, trying to make sense of the large and confusing menu board – and quickly coming to the conclusion that maybe I wasn’t ready to be initiated into the mysterious rituals of bánh mì after all – when a new crowd of people entered through the door behind me and started propelling me forward. One lady, perhaps catching the glint of terror in my eye, tapped me on the shoulder and said “just muscle your way up to the counter”. Nodding, I inched forward, looking anxiously at the faces of the people around me to see if I was breaking bánh mì etiquette. Nobody paid me any attention, though, and before I knew it I was at the counter, opposite a small, squat Vietnamese woman taking orders. She eyed me up and down and barked “what you want?” My palms started sweating. “A bánh mì, please,” I said in a near-whisper. “Pork, chicken or meatball?” she shot back. “Um, pork,” I said, hoping I’d made the right choice. “Hau-ma-nee?” I didn’t understand her, and the thought crossed my mind that this was some secret phrase that only true bánh mì aficionados knew, and by not I was exposing myself as a neophyte just asking for ridicule. “Excuse me?” I said timidly. “HOW MANY?” she replied, nearly shouting in my ear. “Oh, just one.” She stopped in her tracks and looked at me with a mixture of astonishment and exasperation. “Just ONE?” she repeated incredulously. I nodded, and sighing and muttering to herself, she disappeared into the back, probably cursing the Seattle Weekly for coaxing bánh mì imbeciles like me into her shop.

At this point, as if things weren’t confusing enough already, they got worse. I was still standing at the counter, my $2.25 clutched in my hand, when she re-emerged carrying an armful of wrapped sandwiches. “Two chicken and meatball!” she called out, waving them in the air, and suddenly hands shot out from behind me to grab them and give money. “Three pork!” she said, and I timidly reached for one, only to have her cluck in disapproval as she handed them all to someone reaching in over my head. I stood there awkwardly for another moment before it dawned on me that the crowd of people behind me were not waiting to order or waiting for large orders to be assembled, but simply waiting for sandwiches like me, and shamefacedly slipping my money back in my wallet, I slunk to the back of the crowd and waited. And waited. After a small eternity I heard “one pork!” and looked up to find the counter woman glaring straight at me. I grabbed my sandwich, plonked the cash into her hand, and made a beeline for the door with my hard-won bounty. If this was bánh mì for beginners, I decided, I didn’t want to ever find out what bánh mì for experts was like.

Back on the street, I unwrapped my sandwich to see what the payoff for this traumatic experience might be. I found a small, crusty baguette, light and fluffy and quite unassuming. But then I pried it open and gasped. Inside was a dazzling array of colors: a vivid clump of finely-shredded carrots was nestled next to a few translucent slices of cucumber, and a long strip of burnished-mahogany pork lay cradling a scattering of chopped chilies and a fringe of jade-green cilantro. And then I took a bite, just to satisfy my curiosity. The flavors catapulted all over my mouth: spicy, salty, sweet and sour, with an incredible interplay of textures and temperatures, crisp and soft and cool and hot… That bite was so good, I had to take another bite, and before I knew what I had done, I had devoured the entire sandwich. And oh, how I wanted another. It certainly didn’t matter that I probably would have needed stomach-rupture surgery if I had; all I could think about were those flavors. In fact, the only thing that saved me from a trip to the emergency room was that I simply couldn’t bring myself to face that woman again – she would probably have laughed in my face had I tried to order another sandwich. So I did the only thing I could, given the circumstances. I went back home and figured out how to make my own.

I’m not much into morals, but if this story had one, it would probably be some wise saying about never squandering opportunities, particularly when it comes to lunch. Then again, maybe it should be this: should you ever find yourself in a bánh mì deli, whether in Seattle, Saigon or Southampton, for heaven’s sake order more than one. Not doing so is the surest sign of a bánh mì beginner.

Bánh Mì Thit Nuong (Vietnamese Barbecued-Pork Sandwich)

Yield: 8 sandwiches (count on at least 2 per person)
Notes (edited 08/2010): This sandwich has gone through a few different incarnations as I’ve worked to get it as close as possible to my Seattle Deli ideal, as well as incorporate some banh mi wisdom from our recent trip to Saigon. At the beginning I made the pork into a kind of Chinese char siew, but eventually decided I was barking up the wrong tree. Now I do a much simpler roast pork marinated in fish sauce, honey, garlic and pepper. It’s very quick to make, and tastes much more authentic (not to mention crazy delicious; watch out you don’t eat too much straight from the pan!). I’ve also started sprinkling a little Maggi sauce which we saw them doing in Vietnam; it adds a base note of umami which harmonizes beautifully with the other flavors. As far as the bread goes, don’t go for anything that can be described with the words ‘chewy’, ‘dense’ or ‘sturdy’ – so basically, avoid the artisan bakeries. For this sandwich light baguette-type rolls are the way to go, preferably ones that have a thin crust that shatters when you bite in and a flufy crumb that collapses to almost nothing between your teeth.

For pork:
1 (1-pound/450g) piece boneless pork loin
2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon honey
1 1/2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon finely-minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper

For sandwiches:
2 cups (500ml) warm water
1/2 cup
(60ml) rice or white vinegar
3-4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt, or enough to make a moderately salty brine

1/2 lb (250g) peeled and shredded carrots
1/2 lb
(250g) peeled and shredded daikon radish (traditional, though not too sorely missed if you don’t have it)
8 small, crusty baguettes (petit pains), preferably from a Vietnamese bakery

1 hothouse cucumber, halved and cut lengthwise into eighths
thinly-sliced fresh chilies, to taste
fresh cilantro sprigs

a squirt of Maggi or fish sauce (optional)

To prepare the pork, remove and discard any sinew and trim off large pieces of fat on the exterior. Cut the pork across the grain into at least eight 1/4-inch- (1/2-cm-) thick slices (if you’re having trouble with this, it helps to partially freeze the meat first). Transfer pork to a large sealable plastic bag. Stir together remaining ingredients in a small bowl until well combined. Add to pork and turn pork to coat, then squeeze bag to eliminate as much air as possible and seal. Marinate pork, refrigerated, for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight.

Meanwhile, make the pickles: mix together the warm water, vinegar, sugar and salt. Stir until everything dissolves and add the carrots and daikon (if using). Let stand for at least 1 hour. Drain well before using; keep what you don’t use in the brine and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

Preheat the oven to 425°F/220C. Remove the pork from its marinade and position pork strips 1 inch apart on a foil-lined baking sheet. Drizzle with any remaining marinade. Roast on the center rack for about 10 minutes. Brush meat with any juices that have pooled on the baking sheet and turn each piece over. Roast pork for another 10-15 minutes, basting once or twice more, until the pork is browned and glistening. Cool slightly, then cut into pieces that will fit inside the baguettes (if necessary).

Cut the baguettes open on one side and rewarm in the oven to revive their crispiness (the ambient heat left in the oven is usually enough to do this). To assemble the sandwiches, slather one side of the interior with mayonnaise and sprinkle the other with a few drops of Maggi or fish sauce. Next, nestle in a few slices of chili, one or two small pieces of meat, a cucumber wedge, a sprig or two of cilantro and a tangle of carrot-daikon pickle. Be somewhat spartan in the filling department; this shouldn’t be a Dagwood-type sub, but rather a crusty roll with a few flavorful morsels inside. One of the beauties of this sandwich is that each bite is different than the last.

Eat soon, while the pork is still warm and the cucumber still cold.