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Banh Mi 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 French 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 lasted.

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 ingredient.)

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.

My favorite 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 Herb Drink".

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 Seattle Deli and Spring Roll House - Deli, both of which I encourage you to try as soon as you can.

     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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Tastingmenu is focused on superlative restaurant experiences from two perspectives: behind the plate and behind the stove. Tastingmenu is written by Hillel (professional eater) and Dana (up-and-coming professional chef) in Seattle, Washington.


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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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