The Banh Mi of My Dreams

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The moment is positively Proustian.

At Nhu Lan, a one-table Vietnamese sandwich shop in Falls Church, I take a bite of a "special combination" banh mi thit nguoi, which translates as "bread with meat cold cuts." As I taste the pork liver pate, ham, cilantro and pickled radish, I close my eyes and I'm cruising the Mekong Delta at dawn in a funky long boat, as I did a dozen years ago, just south of the city of Can Tho.

It was a private river excursion to the Phung Hiep floating market, and breakfast was provided on board by the young local woman who was my guide. Considering the wild jungle passing by, I braced myself for fermented fish or the like, but instead she handed me a wrapped-up sandwich on French bread. It was my first banh mi, and each taste reminded me that the simplest things often are the most satisfying.

On the bustling street corners of Ho Chi Minh City, banh mi (a phrase that refers both to the bread and the sandwich) are as ubiquitous as half-smokes in downtown Washington. No doubt they are far more evolved than a dog on a bun; to me, they are one of the world's great sandwiches.

For the more than 400 banh mi she sells each day, Ha Lu, Nhu Lan's owner, toasts seven-inch French baguettes that are soft on the inside, with a thin, crunchy crust. Peek over the counter and you can watch her lovingly throw together a perfect banh mi thit nguoi in 30 seconds flat.

She slices the roll lengthwise, then on one side of the loaf smears a deep yellow house-made mayonnaise. (She won't say how she makes the mayo, which the Vietnamese call "butter," but surely the base is egg yolks.) The other half she covers with a smooth, rich pork pate that she also makes from scratch.

That's just the start.

On go more pork products: a slice or two of star anise-flavored head cheese and good, chewy steamed ham that Lu prepares several times a week. For texture she piles on pickled daikon radish and carrot as well as a wedge of cucumber. In go a few slices of seeded jalapeno pepper and a sprig or two of cilantro. In a final flourish, she neatly wraps the finished sandwich in white butcher paper, secures it with a rubber band and hands it to the customer. The price: a bargain at $3.

In addition to the classic cold-cut version, banh mi are made with grilled pork, meatballs, roasted chicken, scrambled egg and more. For vegans, there is the tofu banh mi. Locally, with a menu of 23 sandwiches, Banh Mi DC on Graham Road in Falls Church has the largest variety. In addition to the more familiar stuffings, it offers fillings of tuna, barbecued bacon and sugar cane shrimp.

As to the classic version, the history of this homage to pork is not particularly long, nor is its inspiration wholly Asian. You may have guessed: The influence is French, from the colonial days.

"Before 1954, when the French pulled out, we called them French sandwiches," says caterer Germaine Swanson, 72, a Hanoi native who from 1978 to 1998 operated the beloved Germaine's restaurant in Glover Park. "But only rich people could afford French bread spread with imported butter, pate and ham. After the French left we started to add Asian ingredients to it, spices and herbs like cilantro, to make it taste better." To replace the costly imported cornichons, the Vietnamese created the radish and carrot pickle.

In Falls Church, it's easy to find such a sandwich. Virginia has the fifth-largest concentration of Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans in the United States, with a population of more than 37,000. On weekends, the Eden Center, a Vietnamese shopping center in Seven Corners, is mobbed with shoppers who line up for sandwiches at the eight stores that sell them.

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