Tofu Hoagie – Fuh Wah Mini Market, 47th St, Philadelphia, PA

As something of a coda to last week’s post on the vegetarian bánh mì, I present to you the tofu hoagie. On my last trip to Philadelphia I found myself in an unfamiliar neighborhood, waiting upon the arrival of an associate. Luckily, they had told me beforehand that there was a fine sandwich to be had at the Fuh Wah Mini Market, the tofu hoagie. Imagine my surprise when I found not a generic sandwich starring tofu, but a bánh mì. While it’s true that this bánh mì is a tofu hoagie, in the same sense that a croque-monsieur is a ham sandwich, it doesn’t really properly express what’s going on. The first time I spoke about Philly cheese steaks on this blog, I criticized an establishment for a “misguided but strong provincialism [that seemed] exactly Philadelphian.” I thought back to that phrase as I ate my sandwich, having a good laugh. I imagined an enterprising sandwich shop nearly going broke trying to sell bánh mìs, watching Philadelphian after Philadelphian walk by, glance at their shop with a confused look, and move on to lunch somewhere else. Finally, realizing their mistake, they re-categorize their wares under the familiar “hoagie,” and the business is saved. To say “only in Philadelphia” would be trite, but imagining that situation in any other city I know of seems absurd. In Philadelphia, it seems vaguely reasonable. You can find a lot of people who will say a lot of things about Philadelphia, friends, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who will say it isn’t special.

The sandwich itself was tasty, with considerably more pepper than you find in most bánh mìs. To tofu had a fairly firm texture, having (presumably) been drained and well cooked. The baguette was crisp, and the veggies fresh and crisp. Everything I previously said about vegetarian bánh mìs applies here, but that doesn’t mean that the sandwich didn’t hit the spot on a warm afternoon in the city that loves you back.


Thịt Nướng & Gâ Châ Bóng – Dakao, E San Salvador St, San Jose, CA

Having reached the middle stretch of a month of bánh mì, I find myself presenting sandwiches about which I do not have a tremendous amount to say. In other contexts I might simply elect to not say anything, as it is never my intention to bore readers or to waste their time. But Dakao is one of the few bánh mì options in downtown San Jose, so it probably justifies a few words. Thankfully, given that it is one of the only available options, Dakao makes a decent sandwich. It’s nothing spectacular, another establishment coasting on the high floor of the bánh mì, but it’s good enough. The pork was tasty but a bit sparse, leaving a sandwich where some bites were all flavorful pork and some were mostly Vietnamese mayonnaise.

The main fault with the shredded chicken lay with its lack of flavor, as it comes in a bit bland. All things considered, especially that you can get a sandwich for less than three dollars, the sandwiches are good enough, and some days that’s all you get.

Vegetarian Bánh Mì – Hamilton’s Tavern, San Diego & Tofoo Com Chay, San Jose

The veggie grilled pork sandwich at Tofoo Com Chay in San Jose

I first ate this sandwich over two years ago, fairly soon after I decided to start a sandwich blog. It’s a fairly standard vegetarian bánh mì: fake pork, cucumber, carrot and plenty of cilantro on a crusty baguette. It’s a good sandwich, but I ate it very soon after one of my experiences with the best sandwich in the world, so I had a fresh memory of a really great (pork containing) bánh mì to compare to. I wasn’t quite sure what to think. Was it fair to compare the two sandwiches? What were their relative strengths? Was I even capable of objectively considering it in its own right? That was in December of 2008, and I’ve been ruminating on the answers to those questions ever since.

This is the “Banh From the Pubs,” from Hamilton’s Tavern in San Deigo.  Cucumbers, carrot and daikon slaw join red onion, basil, cilantro and a house made hotsauce. In contrast to most bánh mìs, the bread here was sliced all the way through and the ingredients piled high. Bánh mìs are a lot of things, but “stuffed” generally isn’t one of them. I ate this over ten months ago, and my thoughts on the original sandwich joined with thoughts from this one and began to crystallize. Finally, I know what I want to say.

I feel as if I am on shaky ground, making this declaration and making something I love so much off limits to so many people. But I’ve thought about this a lot and I feel like this is the right thing to say. I was a vegetarian for seven years. I have nothing but respect for people who make what is a legitimate ethical concern their foremost concern in what they eat. But if we sit down and plot where their world intersects with mine we cannot just place things wherever we like. We must place them where they belong.

Imagine listening to La Traviata, only one of the channels in your stereo has gone out. You are still hearing beautiful, wonderful music but it is incomplete, doomed. At the height of Act II each cry from Violetta would go unanswered, she would plead with no one, finally agreeing to sacrifice her greatest love, giving in to non-existent demands, an empty hissing sound. That isn’t art, it’s tragedy. Someone asked me about the sandwich from Tofoo Com Chay. “If I’d never had a regular bánh mì,” I said, “I’d think this was a really good sandwich.” But I have had one, and I cannot help but think that one without meat is irredeemably flawed.

It might seem silly, at first, to suggest that people who do not want to eat meat are missing out because they aren’t eating meat. But knowing this sandwich both with and without meat I cannot help but define those without by what they lack. Consider a person who drives a convertible, and more than that refuses to leave the house when it rains. The only decent thing to do is to respect their choice, but I have no obligation to think it complete. Moreover, I wouldn’t suggest they approximate the experience of sharing a kiss in the rain by necking under the shower head. The meat, the pâté, it’s all missing here, and it’s a striking absence. People who don’t eat meat make a choice, one I respect and understand. That choice includes giving certain things up, and I suggest that bánh mìs should be among them.

The two sandwiches make my point in different ways. The sandwich from Tofoo Com Chay presents a fake meat in place of pork, meaning it is aping the particular style of bánh mì that I love so much. This is directly what I am addressing above. The sandwich at Hamilton’s, meanwhile, forgoes any mimicry and just rachets up the heat. Making a sandwich more spicy can improve it, but it can’t save it. If this is what your sandwich needs to be interesting, good, or  seem worth what you charge for it, I suggest you have gone wrong at some early step and ought to revisit the whole thing. So two bánh mìs attempt to solve the problem of being incomplete in different ways, and both come up short. Their problem, I feel, is that they have taken on a challenge that cannot be met.

In attempting to critique my own point, I considered the “So what?” angle. If people like these sandwiches, shouldn’t that be enough? There’s merit to that argument, and if we were talking about any other kind of sandwich I might agree. But there’s a lot of hype surrounding bánh mìs, hype that I help sustain. Not too long ago an associate told me he was off to try one for the first time. I practically held my breath until he delivered his report. I knew what heights the sandwich could deliver but was terrified that a stroke of bad luck might forever sour him on the sandwich I love. Thankfully that story ends happily, but when I consider these sandwiches I cannot help but be concerned. The casual sandwich eater rarely seeks out different versions of the same archetype; They know what they like and when something new falls short they go back to what they know. Imagine some budding sandwich enthusiast takes only a quick glance at the menu, not noticing that there’s no meat involved. They receive this sandwich and think “That’s it?” The idea makes me shudder.

I feel like a bit of a heel, saying what I’ve said here, and I ask that my non-meat-eating friends forgive me. I love sandwiches, and I love the bánh mì above all others. It deserves honest consideration, even when the conclusions I reach cast me as something of a jerk.

Barbecued Chicken Sandwich & Charbroiled Pork Sandwich – Lemongrass Vietnamese Restaurant, Colorado Blvd, Los Angeles, CA

Yesterday I spoke of the bánh mì’s high-floor/high-ceiling, an idea that the average bánh mì is very good, and the best bánh mì almost incomprehensibly so. I also mentioned yesterday that bad bánh mìs, while rare, do exist. This, friends, is them. Lemongrass earns the sad distinction of being the first establishment in which I would, upon being questioned about the bánh mì, tell someone to skip it. It’s a restaurant with a full menu, and the four sandwiches on offer are but a small part of that menu. Being a sit-down establishment, the sandwich runs a bit expensive at $6. To be frank, they shouldn’t have bothered.

The sandwiches just feel limp. The vegetables are scarce, the buttery Vietnamese mayo lacking, the bread nothing notable, the flavors of everything else underwhelming. I hesitated writing this post. Truthfully, I ate these sandwiches some time ago and thinking back on them I think  that they couldn’t have been that bad. After all, high-floor/high-celing, right? The bánh mì itself is so good that any particular bánh mì can’t be terrible. And they weren’t terrible. But it takes a spectacular combination of apathy, bad luck, and willfully sub-par execution to produce a bánh mì better off skipped. I can’t truthfully say I regret eating these sandwiches, but until today I haven’t written about a bánh mì that wasn’t at least worth a stop, provided you were in the neighborhood. There are better sandwich options in Eagle Rock; save the bánh mì for another day, another establishment.

Chinese BBQ Pork & Shredded Pork – King Egg Roll, Story Rd, San Jose, CA

I spoke a bit about authenticity and neighborhoods here, and more recently I was grousing about a bánh mì I felt was overpriced. What today’s post goes to show, though, is that neither location nor price are legitimate markers of quality. They may be clues, but in the end only in trying the sandwich can one find its true measure. King Egg Roll is on the Vietnamese side of San Jose, and the sandwiches are a steal at $2.50 each. The problem, though, is that they just aren’t that good.

The bánh mì is somewhat unique in that as a concept it possesses both a very high ceiling and a fairly high floor; there exist truly bad bánh mìs, but they’re somewhat rare. The sandwiches at King Egg Roll aren’t bad, they just aren’t good. As you might surmise from the name, sandwiches aren’t the main attraction at King Egg Roll. Fried rolls and shrimp balls get top billing, and sandwiches appear to be an afterthought. Perhaps someone took the high floor concept for granted, and figured any old sandwich they slapped together would excel. That wasn’t the case, but it’s a testament to the sandwich (as a concept, not in this example) that I still left King Egg Roll satisfied. The BBQ pork was a bit dry, and the shredded chicken not particularly flavorful, but a bit of chili sauce gave both some extra kick. Altogether, it’s just tough to go wrong. For $2.50 you get a balanced sandwich on a crusty roll. There isn’t much room in there for complaint.

Banh Mi Thit Kho – Cô Ba, 9th Ave, New York, NY

The pork belly bánh mì at Cô Ba sells for $8, which made it the most expensive bánh mì I’d ever seen. In truth were I only pursuing sandwiches for my personal pleasure I’d scoff at such a thing and head over to Chinatown, where a sandwich almost certainly just as good can be had for nearly half the price. But I am in this not just for myself but for a community of enthusiasts, so I swallowed my objections and ordered the sandwich. Besides, perhaps it would be the best bánh mì I’d ever had, a sandwich that would change my life. In that case it might very well be worth the $8! Well, cutting to the chase, it wasn’t worth it. Were I not so accustomed to paying between $4 and $5 for a sandwich I might have no objection at all, but I am and so I do. It was a good sandwich, but no $8.

I would like to make clear, though, it was a good sandwich. Most everything was in the “pretty good” range, better than acceptable but not so good as to be great. The meat was the real highlight, a rich, fatty bit of pork belly. It’s a shame that the jalapeños you see pictured there are the only ones involved. Jalapeños fit better on this bánh mì than any I’ve ever had, the heat cutting the fat nicely. There was a lot more cilantro than average as well, but the pork belly stood up to that just as well as it did the chilies. In the end, it might not be fair to define a sandwich entirely by its price, but nothing exists in a vacuum. Pork belly isn’t something usually offered on a bánh mì, but all sandwiches exist in a larger context and when a short walk will net you a few bucks saved and a better sandwich, it’s hard to get too excited, pork belly or no.

Grilled Pork Patties – Bánh Mì Zớn, E 6th St, New York, NY

There is a reason this sandwich is named in English. Bánh Mì Zòn is highly regarded by New York fans of the bánh mì, and when I was in town I was excited to see what the fuss was. Looking up the address, I was a little bit surprised to find that it was in the East Village. People have called Bánh Mì Zòn home to the best bánh mì in New York City (something with which I would obviously take issue.) Zòn was going to be only the second bánh mì shop I had been to that wasn’t located in a heavily ethnic area. Going in, I was skeptical. Arriving at the shop, my concerns only grew. The shop is new, with tables and stools in an unblemished, unfinished wood. It was…clean. Most bánh mì shops I’ve been to aren’t dirty, exactly. Cluttered might be a better word for it. There’s frequently racks or shelves piled with Vietnamese packaged foods, the signs are often handwritten or printed on 8.5×11″ paper. In general there’s a slipshod quality to them. Bánh Mì Zòn was having none of that, and that’s why the title of this post is in English. This was the first place I’d been to where English seemed to come first.

I don’t have a fetish for authenticity. I’m not going to claim that a good bánh mì can’t be found in non-ethnic neighborhoods. I’m not going to insist you need dust on top of the refrigerator case and an oven missing a dial to make a proper sandwich, and I’m not going to say that anyone who wasn’t enjoying one years ago can’t enjoy one next year. The whole thing just gave me cause to think. I found myself considering the future of the bánh mì. It’s a good sandwich, in the collective sense. That’s no secret, but you run across more people who haven’t had one than people who have, and it’s too good to stay that way. I’m going to bring this up again later this month, but the future of the bánh mì involves significantly more widespread availability. It involves evolution, offshoots and different takes. It involves franchises. I’ve been singing the virtues of the bánh mì to anyone who would listen for a while now, and I’ve been able to do that because I feel like I understand the sandwich. When I recommend that someone try one, I have a certain confidence in what they’re getting. The idea of a future where that isn’t true frightens me.

In a lot of ways this is no different than any other outgrowth of culture. We all come from somewhere, and our people all make something special. Eventually, if we want to share that thing with the world at large, we have to accept that it isn’t always going to be what it was when we first came to love it. I feel a bit ridiculous saying all of this. Obviously I have no personal grounds on which to contest the evolution of the bánh mì — I am only sharing what someone else was kind enough to share with me. But the idea that the thing that I love may someday be completely different is scary. And when I walk into a banh mi shop that looks nothing like virtually every other bánh mì shop I’ve ever been to, it’s hard not to let the mind wander to unsettling places.

After all of that, my fears remain in a hypothetical future. Bánh Mì Zòn makes a good sandwich, particularly a very good baguette. I don’t think it’s the best in New York City, but I’m not making a straight comparison. The #1 at Zòn is pate, terrine, ham and pork floss. I wanted a more A-to-A comparison, so I got the grilled pork patties, the closest thing to my beloved thịt nướng, frequently referred to as “grilled pork.” Even that turned out to be an unfair comparison, I think. I much prefer the marinated and caramelized bits in thịt nướng, but nem nướng is a different product. It was flavorful and moist, but as I ate it I kept looking at it and thinking of how much surface area had gone ungrilled, how much unfulfilled potential there was for chewy texture and deep flavor. But all in all it’s still a very good sandwich, if you can handle clean floors and new tables.

Bánh Mì Bì – Thanh Huong Sandwich, Senter Rd, San Jose, CA

Bì is dry, shredded pork skin. I don’t recall exactly what the menu board at Thanh Huong said, but I am certain it did not include skin. I believe “Roast Pork” was the title. What I found when I sat down to eat my sandwich was not what I was expecting, but what would the world of sandwiches be without surprises? This was my first encounter with bì, but I was excited to try it. Sadly, my excitement was short lived. I found it to be too dry and too salty, and though I understand those are something like features when it comes to bì, this just seemed excessive. That might be my palate; I’ve come to love flavors from all over the world, but I was raised on distinctly American fare. The texture was interesting, and not in an objectionable way. It’s meat floss, and it has a wispy, fine texture worthy of that name. What seems like innumerable strands come together for a dense, very chewy bite. It’s a product that shows up in a number of Asian cuisines, and I would certainly give it another shot. I’d like to try it outside of a sandwich just so I can get a better sense of how things line up. That’s something I think we take for granted when evaluating the sandwich as a whole. We are generally familiar with our ingredients, and knowing what they taste like independently gives us a better sense of how they relate to each other. Operating in unfamiliar territory, that sense can fade quickly. So perhaps the failure here is mine, perhaps it’s the sandwich maker’s. In the end, the only thing of which I can be certain is what was right there in front of me, and that was a disappointing sandwich.

Bánh Mì Thịt Nguội – Long Phung Sandwich & Food, Tully Rd, San Jose, CA

Long Phung Sandwich & Food is square on the southeast side of San Jose, an area where if you pick a store at random you’re more likely to hear Vietnamese than not. These are the places one goes in search of a fine bánh mì, and it has been my experience that the people in these areas are all too happy to provide that fine sandwich. There are some perils to this, however, and the language barrier is one of them. In most establishments the various sandwiches on offer are clearly delineated in Vietnamese, but the English names are a little bit more hazy. My beloved thịt nướng is sometimes labeled as BBQ Pork, and sometimes as Grilled Pork. In the case of Long Phung, the sandwich was clearly marked as thịt nguội, but the only English description provided was “Pork.” I could inquire after more information, but often the language barrier comes up again. I ordered the pork and went on my way.

As it turns out, thịt nguội means cold cuts. I’m no great fan of cold cuts, and it was interesting to see how they translated to my favorite sandwich. The meat was flavorful and moist, some with the more tender texture of ham and some more firm, as you might see in a salami. As for what kind of bánh mì they made, it was about what you’d expect. The baguette and vegetables were passable but not the best I’ve ever had, and it didn’t seem to me that the meat really had the chewy tenderness I look for. I phrase that personally for a reason. This is a popular filling for a bánh mì. I’ll touch on this later this month, but the more bánh mìs I eat the more I come to accept that other people might value different things. In the final analysis, that’s about where this sandwich stacks up. It wasn’t bad, but it just wasn’t for me.