Friday, November 1, 2013

Bánh Mì Version 2.0

Meatball bánh mì  at Bánh Mì Saigon in New York
I remember when no one in New York knew what a bánh mì was. This was a time before Instagram and Top Chef, when food porn was limited to Saveur and the weekly dose from the New York Times Dining section.  Unless you were Vietnamese or had backpacked in Vietnam, the sandwich of cold cuts, pate, and pickled vegetables was a complete unknown. 

When was this long ago time, you ask?  Only about ten years ago, actually.  My how things change.

I was in the backpacker category of the bánh mì knowledgable, though I can't say my first experience was a positive one.  Rushing to pack and get out of Saigon for an overnight bus trip, I persuaded my brother we should buy two uncertain looking sandwiches from a street vendor.  Unbeknownst to us, Ho Chi Minh was the perfect place to be picking up the sandwich, as it was there that the bánh mì, in its classic form, was invented.

Unfortunately, my brother and I broke the cardinal rule of bánh mì: eat immediately. These are not sandwiches designed to be packed away for late night snack on a long bus ride.  Most of our soggy, smelly sandwiches were left behind in a rest station trash bin.

Mackerel Bánh Mì at Num Pang
While I was living in California a few years back, I came to New York for a visit and was surprised to find the bánh mì had taken the city by storm. It seemed shops devoted to the sandwich were popping up everywhere, as with the mini-chain Baoguette.  And it appeared every Chinatown coffee shop had signs placed in the window advertising bánh mì alongside pictures of dark tapioca pearls bobbing in plastic cups of bubble tea.  (How the Taiwanese sweet milk tea drink became companions with a Vietnamese sandwich is an investigation for another time.)

A Laotian bánh mì shop opens in Tribeca
Coming back to New York a couple of years later it seemed the bánh mì had so quickly moved from obscurity into the mainstream it was already on to Phase Two: reinvention.  While walking through the Village I stumbled upon a small shop front near Union Square, Num Pang.  A look at the menu revealed a list of sandwiches that appeared similar to bánh mì but, well, different. “Pulled Duroc Pork with Honey” and “Peppercorn Catfish with House Made Sweet Soy Sauce” sounded innocuously Asian, but the rest of the sandwich ingredients- cucumber, pickled carrot, cilantro and chili mayo- put these squarely in the traditional bánh mì category.

Num Pang’s Cambodian-style bánh mì clearly hit a nerve with New Yorkers. Now, living back in the city, there are so many Num Pang locations I only need to walk two blocks from my West Village apartment when I get a craving for their Khmer sausage sandwich piled high with pickled carrot and slicked with a sheen of chili mayo.

French Dip Duck Confit bánh mì from Khe-Yosk
With Cambodian versions and Vietnamese versions it was just a matter of time before that other border country, Laos, chimed in with a version of the bánh mì.  Enter Khe-Yosk in Tribeca, a window counter opening onto the street, an offshoot of the attached fine dining Laotian restaurant. A couple weeks after the “khe-yosk” opened I stopped by for a duck confit “French dip” bánh mì.  The foie gras spread was lost to me between the rich shredded duck and bright pickled vegetables.  And though dipping the enormous sandwich into a small container of au jus was challenging, I found the unusual addition to be a nice accompaniment for the crusty loaf of French bread.

I remember when there was no bánh mì.  Now, just ten years on, I live in a New York era of so many kinds of bánh mì and restaurants that serve them, I could eat a different version every day months.  When it comes to this sandwich none was bad, some was good, and more is definitely better.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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