The Banh Mi of My Dreams
Some of the Best Versions Are Made Minutes From Downtown

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.

But when it comes to banh mi, authentic does not always mean good. With so many ingredients in the classic banh mi thit nguoi, there are bound to be shortcuts and wide variations in the quality of the fillings. The worst contain processed, American-style ham loaf, head cheese (not really cheese at all, but a terrine of pig's head meat) that is full of cartilage, and gritty pate.

Great ones are made, not surprisingly, with care given to all the elements.

"It's all in the seasonings," says Ly Lai, 38, owner of the Song Que deli in the Eden Center. Lai's parents own the popular Huong Que (Four Sisters) restaurant nearby. At Song Que, not only the sandwiches but the tropical fruit smoothies are terrific. In the air is the unmistakable aroma -- some might say stench -- of ripe durian fruit.

"The bread must be very fresh. The pickled vegetables must not be too sour or too sweet, and they can't be sliced too thin or the bread gets soggy," Lai says. Her pate is perfect. "Some people make their p¿t¿ with too much pork fat, and these days people don't want to eat that."

I love Song Que's banh mi, but back at Nhu Lan, after three bites of the combination sandwich, I knew I had found my favorite, the one I'll come back for. And that's when I asked shop owner Lu to join me and talk about herself and her sandwich.

She bought the shop, which opened in 1987, 18 months ago.

"First, I changed the spices in most everything," says Lu, 58, who prefers not to let her competition know all the details. "More sugar in some things and less salt in others.

"It's better than the ones made by the previous owner," says Lu, who then admits that the previous owner was her sister, Thuy Lu.

A bigger surprise is to come. It turns out her home town is none other than Can Tho, the same little place on the Mekong where I tasted my first special combination banh mi thit nguoi. She visited last year and found large new homes, far better roads -- and consistently great sandwiches.

"I remember what they were like at home, and that's how I make them," Lu says. "I like the style and the smell of a Can Tho sandwich."

She's not the only one.

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