A thick smear of pâté on a crisp baguette -- what could be more Vietnamese?
A perfect fusion of East and West, Vietnamese sandwiches, or banh mi, date back to the days when the Western world called Vietnam Indochina. Now the cities and towns are filled with banh mi carts, says Mai Pham, chef of Sacramento's Lemon Grass restaurant and author of Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table. Banh mi (which means "French sandwich" in Vietnamese) are an all-day snack, suitable for breakfast and late night alike. They've also migrated to America.
A banh mi is such a simple thing: French rolls spread thickly with butter or a sweet mayonnaise, then stuffed your choice of grilled, curried, or steamed meats. Packed on top are crunchy threads of sweetly pickled daikon, carrot, and sometimes cucumber, capped with cilantro and jalapeños.
The layering of richly marinated meats, bitingly sweet-tart vegetables, and aromatic greens is sublime. But what really makes Vietnamese sandwiches one of my favorite meals is the bread. The cooks start with fresh rolls that are softer and thinner-skinned than your average baguette -- because they're made with a mix of rice and wheat flours -- and then heat them up until the crust becomes a papery, crackling thing, shattering with each bite and dusting your shirt with crumbs.
All for two dollars.
The Vietnamese quarter of East Oakland -- the northern end of International Boulevard and E. 12th Street -- is a banh mi paradise. A dozen cafes along the stretch advertise sandwiches on their awnings and windows. Most just stick to the classic banh mi of steamed pork, "jambon" (unsmoked ham), and a smear of pork-liver pâté.
Trolling through the neighborhood, I poked into a number of cafes looking for banh mi. One of them made me feel as if I had passed through the Stargate into a seedy neighborhood in Hanoi: A haze of smoke hovered against the ceiling, while a half-dozen guys argued over their iced coffees, and another three or four stared intently into video poker machines. Despite the cafe's sign, it was clear that sandwiches weren't really its specialty.
Within blocks, though, are two full-service Vietnamese delis offering everything from cured bacon to curried chicken banh mi. The wide variety of fixings they offer is purely American. But their clientele is mostly Vietnamese.
At lunchtime, the line for banh mi at the tiny Ba Le sandwich shop on International at 15th Avenue (Ba Le means "Paris") stretches out the door. Across the counter three women furiously fill, cut, and wrap sandwiches, the snap of a rubber band announcing that another order is complete.
Many different kinds of pork pack Ba Le's banh mi. The cafe's standout sandwich, the basic banh mi thit, makes every other version I've tasted taste like cold cuts on white bread. The sandwich makers pack cucumber slices, carrot, daikon, and cilantro in with four kinds of pork: a black peppercorn-studded steamed pork, like a softer, milder bologna; star-anise-scented ham; thin slices of gelatinous, meaty headcheese; and a buttery pork liver pâté. Other sandwiches, such as the xiu mai (not the Cantonese dumpling), a loose-meat, squashed meatball, or chewy barbecued chicken basted in a sweet fish-sauce-based rub, are creditable if not awe-inspiring.
For those, you'll have to go to Cam Huong Restaurant, down the street at 7th Avenue. The original Cam Huongs, which owner Huong Luu opened in 1986, are a pair of friendly, chaotic little storefronts on Webster Street in Chinatown. Last year, the International Boulevard branch moved to a bigger, newly renovated space. Now you can walk two abreast around the clean, bright restaurant, and everybody lines up politely.
The menu lists soups, salads, and twenty kinds of banh mi -- including fish balls, sardines, and fried salmon -- which over the years have grown to accommodate customer requests. Now you should skip Cam Huong's basic banh mi dac biet (house special cold-cut sandwich) for everything else. The sweet, meaty juices from the restaurant's xiu mai saturate the sandwich with flavor, and you have to eat the curried chicken sandwich quickly before the mild, flavorful coconut-milk curry soaks the bread. A nem nuong (a firmer, pressed meatball) packs in a bit more garlic. My favorite discovery, though, was the barbecued bacon sandwich, shavings of unctuous roasted pork belly brushed with a sugary red glaze. Cam Huong's sandwiches contain less meat and more of the colorful mix of pickled vegetables -- a better balance, actually.
One sandwich will be more than enough for a light lunch. But the countertops of both cafes are filled with plastic-wrapped cold lunches, such as spring rolls with shrimp, rice noodles with grilled chicken or steamed pork, and many different shapes of leaf-wrapped packets of sticky rice and meats.
The popularity of Vietnamese sandwiches has spread outside the heart of the Vietnamese community. Six months ago, Tony Le opened up Cassava on San Pablo Avenue, in the same Emeryville foodie complex that houses Arizmendi, serving tapioca drinks, Vietnamese sandwiches, noodle salads, and Chinese steamed buns and pastries.
I don't think I've ever paid so much for a Vietnamese sandwich -- five dollars! -- but then again, I don't think I've ever sat in such an uncluttered, clean banh mi shop. Le combines both sides of his Chinese-Vietnamese ancestry, doubling the fusion factor in his food. His grilled chicken sandwich takes a classic approach, filled with peppery, moist chopped chicken, but in Cassava's barbecued pork sandwich Le has substituted red-lacquered, five-spice-scented Cantonese barbecued meat. It works. The meats in the house special sandwich -- steamed pork, headcheese, and ham, are sliced a little thickly, making the sandwich a little harder to eat. But sardines coated in a rich fish-sauce marinade melt in the mouth.
My only complaint with Cassava's sandwiches are that the all-wheat rolls Le uses have a denser crumb and a thicker crust, and they aren't heated long enough to crisp their edges -- the juices and mayonnaise soak far enough into certain spots that the bread becomes soggy, losing that ephemeral texture that I love so much.
However, most of the cafe's frosty tapioca teas -- except the chemical-tasting blueberry -- are made with real fruit. Through your double-wide straw, you can suck up little chunks of rose-flavored lychee or tangy passion fruit along with those gooey giant tapioca pearls that have swept across Asian America. In yet another cultural twist, Cassava adds the pearls to a Vietnamese iced-coffee Slushee. Vietnam meets France meets Taiwan meets 7-Eleven -- and everyone seems to get along just fine.