The Ground Zero of Bánh Mì
601 University Ave., St. Paul; (651) 225-8751
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 9:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m.; Sunday 9:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m.; closed Mondays
2719 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis;
Hours: Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday: 10:00 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 10:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.; closed Tuesdays
No checks, no credit cards.
A la Française French Bakery and Vietnamese Cuisine
823 University Ave., St. Paul; (651) 291-2661
Hours: Daily 10:30 a.m.-8:00 p.m.
I write this the morning the Republican convention begins, and I'm hearing on the news that Philadelphians have elected to mark the occasion by constructing some kind of mile-long hoagie at their city hall. A gesture of welcome? Or that sort of desperate bingeing to alleviate depression that the women's magazines counsel against? I wouldn't care to say, but I've got to admire a place that invests so much energy in a sandwich--after all, sandwiches aren't really that glamorous. If layer cakes and roasts are the cupolas and mantelpieces of our national house of cuisine, sandwiches are only the nails, innumerable and often invisible, fastening desk lunches and car trips and errands together, workmanlike.
Consider, for example, the bánh mì, the Vietnamese sandwich that has bloomed on the scene over the past decade. Technically the name bánh mì refers only to the soft French-style roll or baguette that makes Vietnamese sandwiches' hulls. The names of the sandwiches tend to be "soft-French-style-bread with this," "soft-French-style-bread with that." Bánh mì paté is a pâté sandwich, bánh mì chay is a veggie sandwich, but bánh mì alone is just bread. In the interest of writing English, however, I'm going to use bánh mì to mean sandwich. Hey--don't blame me for the confusion, blame the Earl of Sandwich! What kind of unimaginative sinkhole did he live in that using bread to hold other foods was a trademarkable feat?
Also, keep in mind that the bread in question is a soft, six- or eight-inch-long French-bread-style roll that's not strictly French bread. It never has the chewy crust or springy resilience of true French bread, since it needs to be soft to mold to the fillings. It's usually made with some sugar, and some rice flour, as well as wheat flour. The bánh mì is traditionally spread with mayo, daubed with a peppery liver pâté, filled with some sort of meat or a variety of them, and topped off with a blend of sweet pickled carrots and mild white daikon radish, whole sprigs of cilantro, and lengthwise slices of cucumber and fresh jalapeño. It's an endlessly appealing combination: half French, with the mayonnaise, the pâté, and the bread; half Southeast Asian, with everything else. Beautifully various in every bite, as the sweet or savory meat plays against the crisp, tart, sweet carrots, the cool cilantro, the hot chile pepper.
Am I alone in my admiration? Hardly. As near as I can figure, there must be at least 3,000 bánh mì eaten in the Twin Cities every day. They're available in dozens of restaurants and in nearly every Asian market, including United Noodle, Dragon Star, and Shuang Hur. Walk into Quang on any weekday and you'll see people picking up bags of two or three dozen bánh mì; glance at the order board at Saigon and you'll see scheduled pickups of 40, 150, 300 sandwiches. The owners of longtime Frogtown restaurant A la Française recently leased out the restaurant portion of their establishment to another family so that they could focus exclusively on wholesale bánh mì manufacture and distribution. Asked how many sandwiches the place turns out nowadays, Joe Nguyen fairly swoons at the thought, like being asked to count the grains of sand in an hourglass.
Joe is the son of owners, bakers, and sandwich makers Peter and Thanh Nguyen, who have, by my estimate, the most widely distributed sandwiches in town. Walk around to the side door of the old restaurant and you're ushered into ground zero of bánh mì. It's a dark, wood-paneled room with as much ambiance as a storage locker, lined with cooling racks of just-baked bread and hulking refrigerator cases. Pony up your $1.50 and you're rewarded with a bánh mì thit, made here with a swipe of peppery pâté, a little mayonnaise, julienne cha lua (a popular spongy, beige cold cut that tastes like the mildest bologna and is made of pork and chicken), red-edged sliced barbecued pork, and the usual toppings. The bread from A la Française is particularly light, but the fillings are meager when compared with the bánh mì thit made by other Twin Cities places.
Don't discount the easy availability of the sandwich. I've picked up many of these when I'm on the go, and delighted in them as I drove. Will the Nguyens be the McDonald's of bánh mì? Check back in 20 years.
At Quang, bánh mì are available either already assembled or made to order. Pick up a bánh mì thit ($1.75) from the pile near the register and you get a crisp roll stuffed with everything described above, but more of it, as well as a slice of tendon-filled, gelatinous, chewy lunchmeat that resembles headcheese and reportedly has no translatable name. "We call it the red meat," says Quang manager Daniel Truong. "It's crunchy, it's slimy, and you can leave it off." Fair enough. Leave it on, leave it off--either way you've got a sandwich with enough zip to fuel the whole day. Ante up an extra 75 cents and you can get bánh mì thit with extra everything. I especially like the oomph provided by the extra liver pâté, which gives it all a deep black-pepper base. The "meatball" bánh mì ($1.95) is a treasure: Made not from whole meatballs, but from a chili with the texture of sloppy joes, this mixture is rich with pork, onions, and chiles and is both seriously savory and seriously fiery. (If you love hot Mexican food, this is the bánh mì for you.)
A shredded pork bánh mì ($2.25), though, is only for the more adventurous, it's an unforgettable combination of julienne pork parts and roasted-rice powder, which combine in a resilient, springtimey union--imagine aspic on toast. Beginners should start off with one of the two special order bánh mì, grilled beef ($3) or grilled pork ($3). These two made-to-order bánh mì have long been available to people in the know, but since the Truong family recently decided to add them to the menu, their sweet fresh flavor has been winning fans. "They go like hotcakes," says Truong, "They've always been popular for us, but since we moved across the street a lot of people don't even see the business we do in them. If you're sitting at the tables you might never notice the people coming to pick up the big bags."
You can't help but notice the people coming for sandwiches at Saigon Restaurant and Bakery, a former fast-food restaurant on University that is the city's most artisanal bánh mì shop. Here the three owners--Lysa Bui, Andy To, and Tuyet Dinh (pictured)--labor day and night making all of their ingredients from scratch, from the distinctly yellow and egg-yolky mayonnaise to the savory pâté to the wide, soft rolls with the split tops that make their bánh mì so memorable. Out of the nine very good sandwiches available here, I particularly recommend those bánh mì that involve the sweet, incredibly tender meatballs that simmer all day in a pot of tomato sauce next to the sandwich area. Get them on their own in B2, bánh mì xiû mai ($1.50), where they mash the meatballs into a pillowy layer, or in B4, bánh mì thâp câm, a $2 humdinger that combines thick-cut slices of house-barbecued pork, a few slices of that bologna-like lunch meat, and meatballs along with the generous handfuls of cilantro and fresh slices of cucumber that are the restaurant's hallmark. The best part of ordering at Saigon, though (aside from the unbelievably low prices--can you believe a veggie sandwich costs $1?), is the way they make the sandwiches right in front of you, not unlike Subway, and you can adjust the fillings as you watch: More cilantro? Less? Pipe up.
Oddly enough, Minnesota seems to be something of a promised land for bánh mì. Joe Nguyen from A la Française pointed out to me that the sandwiches here are better than the ones in Vietnam, since we've got modern ovens that make perfect loaves, and Vietnamese street vendors are often relying on jury-rigged ovens that have electric lights as their heating elements. The woman behind the counter at Saigon noted that their other Saigon restaurant, near Dallas, sells their bánh mì at higher prices, even though the ingredients are even cheaper down there--and I didn't even mention the Wednesday special yet. On Wednesdays at Saigon you can buy five sandwiches and get a sixth one free. That explains the order for 150 bánh mì I saw on the order board for an upcoming Wednesday. At eight inches each, if you laid them end to end....It may not be making the news, and it obviously has nothing to do with the Republicans, but I'm thinking that Minneapolis and St. Paul are making a mile-long bánh mì every day.
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