Search, Seattle, Washington, Tasted on November 6, 2006 — If
you haven't tried banh mi (also known in the U.S. as a Vietnamese
sub) then you don't know what you're missing. It's essentially a
fantastic, fresh, delicious Asian sandwich available almost
universally for under $3 (and often about $2). If you're ever
feeling like there's no decent food for lunch (or breakfast or
dinner for that matter) that's quick, cheap, and fantastic, then
look no further. Banh mi to the rescue.
"Fusion" is a dirty word because it's come to represent
food where (often) Asian ingredients are sprinkled into traditional
American dishes willy-nilly without thought or care, like wearing a
fashion accessory that's trendy rather than really putting on an
integrated and well-thought out outfit. And like most things that trying
to be fashionable and done on the cheap (not spending a lot of time on
it is a form of cheapness) the shelf-life is quite short. I find that
things that are timeless are always worth eating. And even though
colonial rule ended in Vietnam over half a century ago the "fusion"
of French bread and Vietnamese ingredients in the form of banh mi has
In it's basic form those ingredients include: a variety
of thinly sliced Vietnamese pork deli meats (many including lots of
tendon and fat in the cross-section), a pate spread on the bread,
julienned and pickled carrots and jicama (though I see some people claim
to eat theirs with daikon), cilantro, and thick slices of jalapeno.
Sometimes there are onions as well. The major variation replaces the
pork deli slices with barbecue pork. (Chicken is also a common main
Writing about food is like dancing about architecture*
however I will do my best to explain the magic of the the best banh mi.
Think of a soft fresh aromatic baguette with a slightly crusty (but not
roof-of-mouth scrapingly crusty) shell. Because the sandwich was made a
couple of minutes ago the gentle pate hasn't had a chance to make the
bread remotely soggy. The pate isn't super liquidy so this is mostly a
minor concern anyway. The pork deli slices come in a variety of forms.
Together they give an almost chewy/ever-so-slightly gelatinous in a good
way texture along with a savory flavor. (In the BBQ pork variation the
meat has a gentle soy-based marinade and is tender, juicy, and slightly
sweet.) The jicama and carrots give crunch and slight sourness in
contrast to the meat citizens of the sandwich. And finally the jalapenos
(also crunchy) and cilantro each add their bright and strong individual
notes. The combination is fantastic. The price is simply ridiculous.
Something this fresh, delicious, and delectable should cost way more.
Subway should be ashamed.
For most of the past year my day job has been on the
east side of Seattle (a banh mi wasteland) so the challenge of sampling
a healthy portion of the Vietnamese sub shops in the south-of-downtown
Seattle "Little Saigon" has been significant. There were days when I
spent more on gas to get my lunch than I did on lunch itself. That said,
it was worth it. Of the many many delis I tried (including: Saigon Deli,
New Saigon Deli, Banh Mi 88, Buu Dien Deli, and Van Loi Restaurant), two
stood out among the crowd.
Banh Mi Thit Nuong (BBQ Pork) is from the oddly named, tucked away
off the main drag,
Spring Roll House - Deli. In a surprisingly unsurprising fashion
they advertise Sushi, Chinese food (despite the fact that it's clearly a
Vietnamese joint), and catering
on their glass windows. I chalk this up to an attempt by a small
business to gather as much business as they can. But inside this small
deli absolutely delicious BBQ pork sandwiches come out of the
curtained kitchen a few minutes after you ask. They also have
frozen spring rolls by the truckload for you take home and deep fry
yourself. (I pride myself on trying everything put in front of me but I
admit that I'm in no hurry to try their "Chinese
Around the corner on the main drag, the
Seattle Deli does brisk business. And they should given the
consistently high quality they make on demand. They clearly had the
best, most balanced,
Banh Mi Thit (with the deli meats) of all the different variations I
tried during my year long experiment. I also often avail myself of the
many yummy Vietnamese items for sale on their countertops including
cha gio (deep-fried
fried spring rolls),
goi cuon (fresh "salad rolls" with pork and shrimp) and a delicious
pre-spiced peanut sauce that is top notch, as well as
a fresh roll variation with sausage slices and (colored?)egg (I
think one of the
friendly folks at Seattle Deli told me this was called Po Pia).
If you live in any city in the U.S. with a Vietnamese
population you can find banh mi for sale near you. Look for balance,
freshness, and diversity of texture and flavor. These characteristics
will guide you to the best Vietnamese sub in town. Those qualities are
certainly the hallmark of the folks at
Spring Roll House - Deli, both of which I encourage you to try as
soon as you can.