Banh Mi are Vietnamese sandwiches that reflect a collision of East and West – a result of 60-plus years of French rule in Vietnam in the late 19th and 20th century. The French influence comes in several forms, beginning with the crusty submarine-sandwich-sized baguette the fillings are served on. It’s then slathered with mayo and a thin layer of pâté. The remaining ingredients are pure Vietnam: roasted or grilled slices of shaved meat that’s been marinated in flavorings such as lemongrass, garlic, sugar, and fish sauce (though recipes vary tremendously and are not limited to just these ingredients). The meat is then topped with matchstick-sized slices of pickled carrots and daikon radish, fresh cucumber, and cilantro with its stems and leaves fully intact. Hot peppers are sometimes included – often Jalapeno here in the U.S., though in Vietnam they would be the tiny “bird chili” or other small-sized but incendiary chili peppers.
I’m normally skeptical of anything that gets so much press in such a short period of time, so when I read about Banh Mi in three different food publications all in the same week in 2007, my skepticism radar went to red alert. Surely this was something that can’t be that good, I thought.
Turns out it is that good.
You can thank the gifted and talented kitchen of Armsby Abbey for abolishing my skepticism. Located in Worcester, Armsby Abbey is a gem of a gastropub with a focus on handcrafted artisanal foods and menu ingredients that are as locally sourced as possible. Their version of Banh Mi is served on a house-baked baguette roll with freshly made aioli and features a sweet but spicy braised brisket, house pickled carrots & radish, thin slices of cucumber, and a topping of fresh cilantro. After my first bite, I knew I was eating the single best sandwich I’ve ever eaten. I repeat: EVER. It set me back $12, but considering the supremely awesome quality of the food, the eye-widening selection of craft beers, and the warm, comforting atmosphere, it was the best $12 for a sandwich I’ve ever spent. Sadly, the sandwich is either a seasonal item or something that appears only once in a while because it’s not listed on the menu currently posted on their website.
Closer to Boston, I’ve had Banh Mi at two locations:
Pho Viet recently got a positive write-up in the Boston Globe, so much so that I clipped the short article and kept it on my desk at home as a reminder to go there and try their Banh Mi. I’d been glimpsing at that clipped article for many months, so by the time I went there (it’s located in the Super 88 Food Connection food court in Allston) I placed my order with the highest expectations. I ordered a roast pork Banh Mi, and for the first two bites I was in a state of bliss. The roast pork is finished in the fryer, which crisps up and caramelizes the outside of the meat and has an awesome texture, even a little bit of a crunch – something I always love. Unfortunately, that bliss didn’t last long. By the third bite, I was hit by a salt bomb. Much like eating a spicy bowl of chili, where the first few bites don’t seem so bad, then the heat builds up until your mouth is on fire, I experienced a build-up of saltiness that hit a crescendo-like assault on my tongue that left me pining for anything to drink.
Perhaps I caught the folks at Pho Viet on a bad day. I watched the woman who assembled the sandwiches, her arms and hands moving in blur. But she did seem to have a heavy hand as she doused the meat with fish sauce from a squeeze bottle – something I was at first alarmed of but eventually assured myself was probably okay since these folks know what they’re doing – they’ve got great reviews on Yelp and a shout-out from the Boston Globe, after all. But was that really a salt shaker that she sprinkled over the sandwich after laying on the fish sauce? I didn’t bother asking; at that moment they had my full trust and I anticipated nothing but pure yumminess. I’m inclined to go back there again for another try – any place deserves a second chance. But as I walked down the street to get a beer, I felt sad that instead of the aftertaste of caramelized roasted pork and cilantro, I had felt like I’d feasted on a $3.25 salt lick.
Close to where I work in Cambridge is the MomoGoose food truck. Located adjacent to the inbound Kendall/MIT stop at Kendall square, this is among a handful of food trucks that service a lunchtime crowd primarily of software engineers and MIT students. Among the many other items on its menu, there is a selection of five sandwiches simply listed under the “Baguette” category. These are, in fact, authentic Vietnamese-style Banh Mi sandwiches.
I’ve had all five of their Banh Mi offerings and my favorite is the Bulgogi (beef) sandwich. In my mind, this one is perfect. Not too salty, not too sweet, just the right balance of flavors. The meat also has the familiar caramelized exterior, and the perfect vegetable-to-meat ratio. And their baguette is outstanding, if not a bit crumbly on the exterior (be sure to eat over a plate or napkin, or eat outside on a bench because you’ll have an impressive accumulation of crusty shards in front of you by the time you’re done). At $5, this is more than most other Banh Mi prices, which typically go for $3-$4, but given the dearth of quality sandwich options around Kendall Square I think it’s a bargain.
Although I LOVED the sandwich at Armsby Abbey the most, I’m glad to have a tasty $5 option near my workplace that I can frequent regularly. Pho Viet’s will get another chance from me some day, but I’ll only go with a backup plan to have drinks at a nearby bar to wash down the salt!
- Sandwich sized French baguettes, or enough long baguettes to cut the amount of portions you need
- A cucumber, sliced
- Jalapeno peppers, sliced and seeds removed (leave seeds if you like the heat!)
- Fresh cilantro
- Teriyaki sauce
- Fish sauce (optional) – available from Asian markets that carry Thai or Vietnamese ingredients
- Any meat of your choice, with a preference for pork or beef, thinly sliced
- The day before making your sandwich, cut a few carrots into julienne strips and season with equal amounts of salt & sugar and toss with some cider vinegar. Refrigerate overnight.
- Marinate the meat in the teriyaki sauce and refrigerate that overnight as well.
- The next day, slice the baguette into sandwich sized lengths. Preheat the oven to 400°F and put the baguettes in for 5 minutes so the outside crisps up.
- Remove meat from the marinade and cook under the broiler, turning once, until cooked through – this should only take a couple of minutes and will approximate the grilled flavor of store-bought banh mi (you could also cook the meat in a pan but it won’t have a charred flavor).
- Slice open the baguette and spread on a layer of mayonnaise. Place some meat on the baguette, then pile on a layer of the pickled carrots, scatter a few slices of fresh jalapeno (seeds removed if you can’t stand the heat), some sliced cucumber and one or a few pieces of cilantro, stem and leaves intact. Enjoy!