The Sandwich Century: #5 – The Bánh Mì Sandwich

It was bound to happen:  the Sandwich Century project has run head-on into the grim reality of living in San Antonio.  Oh, sure, we’re a 21st-century burg, and we have our share of Asians contending for their share of the Frito pie while Germans and Mexicans fight it out for ethnic supremacy.  But as I learned when the time came to assemble this fine Vietnamese concoction, the southeast Asian community is not as well-represented here, at least in terms of condiments, as your average sandwich blogger might hope. But I am strong.  I am determined.  And I own a car.  I will not be bested, and as God as my witness, I will overcome my natural laziness and write about this thing.

For those of you who live in places even more backwatery than San Antonio, the bánh mì is a sort of a Vietnamese sub sandwich, made with a special rice-flour-based baguette.  It is also one of the top three products of western imperialism in Vietnam, right below phở and Maggie Q.  Immensely popular in its homeland, the sandwich — the result of hot, dirty culinary miscegenation between the Vietnamese and the French — has started to crop up all over America in areas with lively Viet populations.  Not that there is such a thing here in SATX, but a sandwich is a sandwich, and perhaps in eating one I might finally heal the festering wound of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.  I am all about solutions.

THE SANDWICH: The product of French colonialism caught on in Vietnam, and in subsequent locales where the Vietnamese cropped up after the war, for the same reason than most sandwiches do:  it’s cheap, (relatively) easy to make, portable, and lends itself easily to divergent flavors.  It’s essentially a variant on French sandwiches of the country style:  vegetables and savories served on a baguette.  What distinguishes it from a typical sub sandwich is the (relatively) exotic mix of ingredients, and the fact that it has diacritical marks in its name.  Since I have the opportunity to put the word “relatively” in parentheses three times in one sandwich, I will add that it is (relatively) the most difficult sandwich to put together so far.

THE INGREDIENTS: The bánh mì proved to be, far and away, the most pain-in-the-assy of all the sandwiches I’ve made for this project so far.  To begin with, it’s named after a baguette — but not just a typical baguette, oh, no.  That would be too easy to find, even in south Texas.  The bánh mì is made of a particular type of rice flour, and I wanted to make at least that much of a gesture towards authenticity, so I had to go cruising around for someplace to get a genuine rice flour baguette.  I eventually had to drive way the hell past downtown to a place called Pho Thien An to get one, but it was thick and warm and tasty, well worth the drive.  Most of the rest of the sandwich wasn’t too hard to put together:  cucumber, cilantro, mayonnaise (in a gesture towards southern white trashiness, I used Duke’s), chili pepper (an even ruder gesture towards southern white trashiness, I used jalapeño), liver pâté (a thick, chunky pork variety I picked up at Central Market), and grilled pork (sliced pork loin, which I seasoned with pepper and coriander, and which made this, if you want to get all technical, into a bánh mì thjt nuóng).

But the pain in my ass had not yet faded.  The final two ingredients required were pickled carrots and daikon (Japanese radish).  How fucking hard could it be to find these things?  Pretty fucking hard, as it turned out.  Pickled carrots were impossible to find anywhere, and I found raw daikon, but I had no intention of pickling that shit, because even as an unemployed layabout, I have better things to do.  I was just about to give up when, on an ingredient expedition to Whole Foods, I ran into a little can of what identified itself as “Vietnamese vegetables”, which included both pickled daikon and carrots, along with some other hard-to-pin-down mush in a vinegar soup.  Your police can’t stop me!  Your preachers can’t stop me!  Your president can’t stop me!  Okay, so maybe it wasn’t the ideal bánh mì, but under the present one-man-one-sandwich system, I think it was the best I could hope for.

THE TASTE TEST: I’m going to confess something to you folks:  I am not what you would call crazy for cilantro.  This is as shameful as cancer in today’s society, because it renders you generally ill-disposed towards Vietnamese food.  This is because the Vietnamese people use fresh cilantro like most people use oxygen.  It’s a taste that tends to overwhelm everything else on my specific palate, and even going light on it like I did here, it got in the way of what would otherwise have been a pretty delightful array of flavors.  Served fresh and hot on a high-quality baguette, the pork sizzled right into the pâté, loosening it up and blending the flavors together perfectly.  The cuke and the jalapeño were flavorful and crisp, with just enough heat, and the mayo was light and inoffensive.  If I can duck the authenticity issue a bit and make this with little or no cilantro, I could see it become a regular favorite, but given that I went through a whole tank of gas driving around to get the ingredients, it’s not really cost-effective.

3 SHOTS LICKED so far.

  1. Djur
    03/15/2011 at 12:52 PM

    Oh, man, now I need to go down to An Xuyen Bakery and pick up like six banh mi. Thanks a lot.

  2. roseyv
    03/15/2011 at 1:08 PM

    So, would it be helpful for you at all to put together a short list of the kind of hard-to-find condiments and stuff you’re likely to encounter in your quest, so that those of us who are a little closer to the center of the universe might maybe put together little care packages for you? Or would that defeat part of the purpose of the exercise, as it were?

  3. colorblind
    03/22/2011 at 6:18 PM

    Can’t you just get pickled carrots in the latino foods section? I’m assuming the carrots are supposed to be spicy.

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