Brooklyn's Banh Mi Stars
Picture the first Vietnamese cook to come face to face with a simple, bland French baguette, brought by the colonial regime. What to do? First, the cook remakes the bread, blending rice flour with the wheat to create a delicate, fluffy crumb and light-as-air texture. Then he stuffs the airy, crunchy loaf with liver paté, sliced jalapeños, daikon pickle, and plenty of intensely flavored Vietnamese charcuterie and grilled meats. East meets West in the world's most delicious sandwich.
But Andrea Nguyen, cookbook author and Vietnamese food expert, is tired of hearing that banh mi is a product of French colonialism. "Sure, the bread is French," she says, "but it's our sandwich. I don't think a Vietnamese cook would ever identify it as a French-colonial thing."
And it's also often said that the French brought charcuterie to Vietnam, but it isn't true. Vietnam has a long tradition of pig-preserving, from headcheese (gio thu) to pork rolls (gio lua). It's a subtle point, but an important one. Banh mi is a Vietnamese invention.
Nguyen has stringent criteria for what makes a good one: "It has to be on really good bread, and you have to slather on the whole-egg mayo," she says. "Don't be shy with the chilies! There should be a nice balance of carrot and daikon pickle. You don't have to have a ton of meat—not like a deli sandwich—but the meat has to be well seasoned."
Armed with that expert advice, I walked Brooklyn's Chinatown sampling sandwiches, and I can say two things for sure: Banh mi in Brooklyn is alive and well, and the going rate is $3.50—no more, no less. Each of the four places I sampled were asking the same low price.
My first stop was Tan Thanh, a sunny storefront that stocks jackfruit candy, various Chinese pastries, and bubble tea, as well as seven varieties of banh mi. The filling options include ham, pâté, pork roll, barbecue pork, sardine, shredded chicken, and shredded pork in various combinations—although one choice, "sour pork hash," you'll only find on the to-go menu.
Order that one, and the nice lady behind the counter might give you a dubious look as she pulls out a handful of something that looks like rolls of pennies, except the rolls are encased in banana leaves. Yes, that's the one you want: The banana leaves turn out to enclose a delicious cured pork sausage. It's not very sour, although it has a funky, aged-meat smell as well as an appetizing, coarse texture, studded with whole black peppercorns. The sausage is halved, and tucked into the warm, crusty bread, augmented with perky cilantro, pickled daikon and carrot, cucumber, and a barely-there smear of pâté.
Most banh mi places offer one sandwich with the equivalent of the "works," which probably includes pâté, ham, pork roll, and possibly barbecued pork, along with the requisite veggies. Tan Thanh's is very well proportioned—not overstuffed—featuring pork roll, lean ham, and a single slice of very gelatinous headcheese.
Pork roll is ubiquitous in most banh mi, and many places have coolers stacked with logs of their homemade versions for sale. It's similar to mortadella (or bologna, depending on how classy you're feeling today). Nguyen translates it as "classic silky sausage," which sounds much nicer than pork roll.
Just a couple blocks away on Seventh Avenue, I came across Thanh Da I, which offers banh mi along with bun (noodle dishes), salad rolls, and bakery items. There's a lunch counter and a small seating area, where two teeny, elderly ladies were digging into slabs of grilled meat with gusto.
The options here are familiar: cold cuts, barbecue pork, shredded chicken, meatball, or sardine. Want it spicy? Yes, you do. They'll ask you that at each place, and if you nod, you'll get slices of jalapeños nestled in with the filling. The chilies are not terribly fiery, but provide a hot, green jolt that Nguyen calls "exciting."
Thanh Da's No. 1 sandwich—the one with everything—first gets a scrape of pâté and then is filled with the mild pork roll, "ham," (thin ribbons of pork fat tinged with pink), and bits of barbecue pork, along with the usual cucumber slices, daikon-carrot pickle, and cilantro. The barbecue pork here is small-diced and deliciously, darkly caramelized. I especially like the sardine sandwich—but if you don't like sardines, it's not the kind of thing that's going to convert you. The small fish are smashed together into a pungent, rough mash before they're spread on the bread.
But Thanh Da's meatball banh mi was the only inedible sandwich I encountered on my banh mi spree. The ground meat was very loose, not so much balls as mush, and was unnaturally neon pink. The only other downside to the sandwiches here is that the mayo is conspicuously lacking.
Thanh Da I has a sister satellite, Thanh Da II, which offers the same banh mi selection, minus the other hot dishes. It's right off Eighth Avenue, conveniently in the heart of Chinatown, and it's tiny, with a few stools against one wall (covered with a giant mirror so that you can see, in high definition, what your face looks like when you're stuffing a banh mi into it). The counter is stacked high with plastic containers of sesame, jackfruit, and gooseberry candies, and various nut brittles. Behind the counter, three gruff, apron-wearing women fabricate the sandwiches in a space the size of a closet. The barbecued meats are kept hot in a large toaster oven, and beneath that, rows of torpedo-nosed baguettes are stacked like cordwood.
Walk north up Eighth and you'll come to Ba Xuyen, where you can find the best banh mi in the neighborhood (barely surpassing Tan Thanh's). There are also tasty salad rolls and fried spring rolls, and, in the self-serve warmer, you might strike it lucky and find banh beo—tiny, jiggly steamed-rice cakes, with various savory or sweet toppings. The other day, the cakes were crowned with a small dollop of mashed mung bean, fried shallots, dried shrimp, and ground peanuts.
Ba Xuyen's banh mi are a bit overstuffed, but the fillings are so good you won't mind. The meatball version is particularly excellent, filled with irregular orbs of juicy pork, dabbed with a tangy-sweet sauce. The barbecue-pork sandwich comes filled with long, thin rectangular slices of intensely porky sausage lightly slicked in sticky barbecue sauce. The grilled pork option—my favorite—features spicy-sweet marinated slices of pork, very caramelized and tossed with ground peanuts and scallions. Happily, Ba Xuyen doesn't skimp on either the mayonnaise or the delicious, very livery pâté—a banh mi from Ba Xuyen is a serious force to be reckoned with.
"What's really great about the sandwich," says Nguyen, "is that you can taste the individual elements, but then, as a whole, you savor the combination of flavors and textures." Amen, and pass the banh mi.
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