Banh mi oh my
by Jon Worley
Some time ago I realized that I could eat southeastern Asian food every day for the rest of my life. And that's not even counting the various flavors of India, which I also love. There's something about the rich, the spicy, the tangy and the fresh that really tickles my tongue. Oh, and coconut milk is quite nice, too.
So back in 1999 when I was working in downtown Raleigh, I noticed a story about a new "Vietnamese sub shop." The Dalat Restaurant, which sits in a commercial strip on the south side of the main N.C. State campus, decided to rent the small space next door and sell subs.
But not just any subs. These subs used Vietnamese-style meats, cilantro, pickled veggies (carrots and something white, maybe taro or turnips or something) and the craziest mayo you've ever tasted. Call it a Vietnamese twist on the French original, this mayo was rich, tangy and exceptionally spicy. Exceptionally awesome, I must say.
$3.50 for the lot. I ate one and was smitten. I must have grabbed a sandwich two or three times a week, and I never got tired of the wild mix of flavors and textures. I always got the Vietnamese meatballs, though there were about 10 other options. While I am usually adventurous, I liked the meatballs too much to give them up for an experiment.
At some point around the time I lost my job (the company I worked for had burned through its $200 million and had nothing to show for it), the Dalat Sub Shop closed as well. Despite glowing reviews, it apparently didn't get enough business.
A decade later, I'm working on K Street. I cruise the Farragut Square food trucks every Friday (I usually eat some choice bibimbap from a Korean truck--not southeastern Asian, but still pretty awesome). And I started hearing about the banh mi craze.
Our neighborhood listserv (which is handy in many ways; I've gotten two jobs through it) went through a couple hundred "This is the best banh mi around" posts. As soon as I figured out what a banh mi was, I chuckled every time I saw a mention. Hell, I thought, they had this stuff in Raleigh ten years ago. It can't be that great.
Ah, but then I remembered the visceral impact of the sandwich. Cool and fiery to the tongue, soft and crunchy between the teeth. And flavors that whipsaw the taste buds into oblivion. It's worth giving up sex--at least for a day or two--to get good banh mi.
After a bit of searching around, I had my first D.C. banh mi last week. I got it from the Cuban sandwich truck in the square. Those folks are smart enough entrepreneurs to know they needed to set in a stock of small baguettes to make the hottest sandwich in town. I got mine at 11:45--ahead of the main rush--and I got the last sandwich of the day.
It was not as good as Dalat. For starters, the meat was pulled pork. Which is fine, but not quite as tender as three day-cooked Vietnamese beef. The sauce was this spicy tamarind stuff, which was fine, but not transporting. The cilantro was plentiful and fresh, but instead of pickled veggies there was some sort of spring mix. All in all, the sandwich was damned tasty, but not up to the standard of my memory.
Isn't that how it always is? I could probably jaunt over to Ho Chi Minh City and get me some banh mi that doesn't quite live up to my memory. Of course, I might have to sample a few hundred other local delicacies. I mean, as long as I'm in the neighborhood and all.
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