I love Chowhound. If it wasn't for Chowhound, I might never have heard of banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwiches. For most of my life, I have lived in places without any authentic Vietnamese restaurants, and when I have eaten at Vietnamese restaurants, I've usually concentrated on the rolls and especially the noodle dishes, like pho. However, all the recent discussion about banh mi here has certainly raised my interest. So recently when I was in Vegas looking for a light lunch that would hold me until dinner at Lotus of Siam, I decided to look for a banh mi.
I spotted a place advertising "Vietnamese Food To Go." After pulling into the parking lot, I saw the magic words banh mi written on an outside window. I walked into a restaurant filled with wonderful aromas and noticed that the list of choices for banh mi that were the first items on the to-go menu posted above the counter. At first I selected the shredded pork as several chowhounds have suggested that was a good place to start. The young man at the counter told me that the shredded pork was still frozen, "Sorry." I asked him for a recommendation, and he suggested a number one, the gourmet combination or some such name like that.
I took the banh mi over to a friend's place and sat there and ate it, over and over again saying to my friend, "this is the best sub sandwich I've ever had!" The next day on my way out of town, I stopped by the same restaurant and ordered another banh mi number one. Unbelievably, it was even slightly better than the first one.
I have no idea if the banh mi that I ate were exceptional or fairly standard, but I do know why I fell in love with them. First off, the textures were wonderful. The French baguette had a light, yet extremely crunchy crust which shattered as my teeth bit into it. That initial mouth feel was followed by the softness of the interior of the roll and the fillings. The end of every bite was the totally different crunch of the vegetables fresh cucumber and pickled carrots and (?) radishes. Each time I chewed a bite, the mouthfeel was varied and complex.
The second part of the banh mi experience was the taste, or more accurately, the tastes of the sandwich. After gobbling down about two thirds of my first sandwich, I decided I'd better deconstruct it to see why it was tasting so wonderful. Directly on top of the bottom half of the baguette was a smear of pâté, much as someone might smear mayo on a sandwich. This was topped by a thin slice of some sort of whitish pork loaf. Then there was a thin slice of what looked to be barbecued pork. Sliced cucumber, pickled veggies, and a few sprigs of cilantro were the top layer. There must've been slivers of jalapeno and a dribble or two of fish sauce in there as well because tiny bursts of chile heat and fishy salt would sometimes explode in my mouth. This sandwich touched almost all the flavor notes. In addition to the wonderful taste of the baguette, there was an overall balance between the sourness of the pickles and savoriness of the meats. At the same time, hints of the pâté, the chilies, and the fish sauce would dance across my palate.
I'm still amazed by my banh mi experience. I'm also puzzled that banh mi is not for sale everywhere in the country. The ones that I ate were about 8-10 inches long and cost $2.50. Not only were they better and cheaper than anything a person can find at Subway, but I can't recall ever having a sub, even handmade meatball or spicy Italian sausage subs, that had tastes and textures as complex and as good. The only bad thing is that I'm going to feel deprived until I get back to a big city and have banh mi again.