Ask somebody on the street, “Who invented the hero?” and chances are the respondent will credit Italian American immigrants, who modified a torpedo-shaped French loaf, freighted it with cold cuts or leftover meat-balls, crammed it in a lunch pail, and carried it off to work. But wait a minute! Halfway around the world, the hero was simultaneously being invented by the Vietnamese. Also deploying a modified baguette—one that combined rice and wheat flours—they piled on rubbery pâté, sliced pork, and anisey Chinese sausage. Then they garnished it with sweet pickled vegetables and cilantro, and smeared it with chile paste. Known as banh mi, the resulting clash of cultures and flavors represents an invention as formidable as the Italian American hero.
Banh mi have been popular around area Chinatowns for more than a decade. They first attracted attention when a sign, now gone, appeared at 85 Bowery bearing the neon pink come-on “Vietnam Sandwich French Sandwich.” But my favorite version has always been found at Ba Xuyen, on the outskirts of Brooklyn’s Chinatown. A few weeks ago the proprietors abandoned their small Seventh Avenue digs and moved to Eighth Avenue to take advantage of the neighborhood’s rapid northward expansion. The spacious new premises are decorated Chinese-bakery style, with red-ribboned plants, a Buddhist shrine ringed with offerings of fresh fruit and cups of coffee, and spacious tables that often accommodate parties of elderly ladies, gray hair neatly bunned on top of their heads, snacking and sipping tea.
Not for nothing does it look like a bakery—a new line of Chinese pastries is displayed in a gleaming case along one wall. At the rear of the store, a broad counter dispenses eight types of banh mi, heralded by a brightly lit menu board featuring color transparencies of each sandwich. There, too, find a list of the wonderful fruit shakes ($2.50), compounded of crushed ice, sweetened condensed milk, and fruit. Lichee is the tastiest, though jackfruit has its own special charms. A new addition is durian, made with the brown, bumpy football of a fruit you often see hanging in Asian markets. Some find the musky flavor heavenly, others think it tastes like puke.
A stainless-steel table displays Vietnamese snacks and a few set meals in carryout containers. You can get rice noodles topped with fried spring rolls and salad for $5, a formidable deal in itself. Also arrayed are rolls of banana sticky rice cooked in banana leaves, festively tied with pink ribbons. But the sine qua non of Ba Xuyen remains the Vietnamese hero, and the shockingly low price of $2.75 makes it one of the cheapest full meals in town. I dutifully ate my way through all eight choices, including the surprisingly delicious sardine. Though some extol the chicken (#6), I vastly prefer the meatball banh mi (#4), made from succulent orbs of pork and onion that could be mistaken for Italian meatballs save for a faint whiff of fish sauce. As I downed my fourth or fifth of the last few weeks, standing on the lofty heights of the park called Sunset Park, contemplating the busy New York harbor below, I mused, “Gee, I wonder what this would taste like topped with mozzarella.”