This is Not a Bánh Mì


This is not my first “This is not a sandwich” post. Hope though I might, it is not likely to be my last. But, I can say with some certainty, I will never write one so heartbreaking. I found the above item on the buffet line at the Cosmopolitan hotel on the Las Vegas strip, a swanky joint pitching itself as the fashionable alternative to garish tourist traps. It was a fine buffet up until I reached the above, which I found sitting behind a sign that read, simply, “bánh mì.”

I’ve eaten a lot of bánh mì. Given that it’s roughly Vietnamese for “sandwich,” it’s only natural that there’s a good deal of variation between establishments, between sandwiches. It’s a big world. There is little room in it, however, for the nonsense featured above.

Look at it. Spongy bread more at home in a steamed bun, a bit of meat, a bit of carrot and daikon. And they have the nerve to call this a bánh mì. Where’s the baguette, the sandwich’s nod to its colonial roots? Where’s the cilantro? Where’s the sandwich, for crying out loud? What I see is little more than an ill-formed fusion taco, a poorly thought out gimmick, a monstrosity barely fit for a cooking channel reality show, a…I haven’t the words.

I want to stress something important: This is not pedantry. This is not the exclusive concern of the blogging sort of enthusiast. This matters. The bánh mì is in its infancy as a trend, but word is spreading. More and more people are hearing the good word and their finding their curiosity peaked. And what if some of those people should happen to find themselves on vacation, at a hip casino, enjoying the wares of a buffet featuring some quite good food? Well, they would try the bánh mì. And, finding the above, I can only guarantee their disappointment. Part of that is my fault; I’ve long praised the bánh mì with language both flowery and strident, and I accept my fault in this. But the above sandwich is not my doing. Someone’s going to hear about the bánh mì, they’re going to eat the above, and they’re going to say “That’s it?” It’ll be over for them, and that’s why this matters.

The bánh mì has brought me no small amount of joy, and it breaks my heart that some charlatan behind the line in Las Vegas might be taking that joy from person after person, day in and day out. It’s just…gone. Not lost, though. Stolen.


Fried Catfish Po Boy – The Louisiana Territory, San Francisco Bay Area

The Louisiana Territory is another Bay Area food truck, and their Po Boy is a fairly standard offering: Fried catfish, lettuce, tomatoes, special sauce. All of that is perfectly satisfactory, the fish is moist and the sauce, bearing a strong resemblance to tartar sauce, pairs nicely. It was a tasty number, and I want to be perfectly clear about that. This was tasty. Here’s what it wasn’t: A sandwich. Let us return briefly to August of 2009, and our review of the now-closed Hank’s Eats:

The idea of what is and is not a sandwich comes down to the obvious and the intent. The obvious is the precious few simple qualifications that must be met, namely bread on the top and the bottom and some other ingredient in the middle. The intent is what makes it a sandwich and what ends up disqualifying the Porky’s Revenge. In order to be a sandwich the intent must be for the food to be eaten aligned horizontally. It is in this that we find sandwiches in harmony with our mouths and indeed our larger selves. It is in this that we find each bite encompassing the sum total of the ingredients in the sandwich, all of them represented in their proper proportions. It is in this that a sandwich becomes a sandwich.

It might not be clear from the photo, but the bread for the Louisiana Territory’s Po Boy isn’t sliced horizontally. It isn’t sliced at all. The loaf is hollowed out to a thin crust, then filled with ingredients. Now, I’m going to get a bit pedantic here, and if other people aren’t willing to join me I hold no grudge. That said: Whether this is or isn’t a sandwich is not just an academic distinction. In filling a hollowed out roll, everything is to be mixed together. You construct a salad, then stuff that salad into a casing. A sandwich, as we all know, is constructed in layers. A big part of what matters is what I mentioned above, that each bite (ideally) contains the sum total of the sandwich. A great many sandwiches do not meet this ideal, but similar to serving a sandwich with a fork in it, to stuff a roll with a salad is to surrender without even making an attempt. The torta I had recently at Casita Chilanga didn’t feature a bit of everything in every bite, but it is intention that makes that an honest failure and this a sin. The mixture at Casita results from an abundance of starring ingredients and enthusiasm. Here you’ve just got catfish and friends, all thrown together, taking your chances. You surrender all control over the arranged presentation of ingredients. If that’s the choice an establishment makes that’s their business, I simply ask that they not sully the good name of sandwiches with the lackadaisical attitude.

“The Big Nasty” — McAlister’s Deli, Cleveland International Airport, Cleveland, OH

There are many cities in the United States that have a signature sandwich, or claim to. My goal is to one day try them all. For some reason, when I recently had a layover in Cleveland, I was convinced that Cleveland’s claim to sandwich fame was the “Hot Brown.” It wasn’t until I returned home and looked up the history of the Hot Brown for a refresher that I was reminded it is actually Kentucky’s signature sandwich, not Cleveland’s. Nevertheless, I was able to find a type of Hot Brown represented at Cleveland International, and adopted a “when in Rome” attitude toward the endeavor.

A bit of background info on the “Hot Brown”: traditionally, this is an open-faced sandwich with turkey and bacon, covered in a bechamel cheese sauce and broiled until the sauce is browned. Leaving aside the obvious fact that an open-faced sandwich is not a sandwich, the “Big Nasty” on offer at McAlister’s Deli is a Hot Brown in spirit only, similar to how a Twinkie could be viewed as a type of eclair.

“The Big Nasty” is roast beef and cheese piled atop a quartered foot-long baguette, and the diner is presented with a tub of gravy to pour on top, and a knife and fork with which to consume the beast. I could have attempted to assemble the bread quarters into a couple of makeshift “gravy-dip” sandwiches, but that is not what we do here. It is our business to consume menu items as presented, and as intended, be they sandwich or merely masquerading as one. I am pleased to report that, although far from being a sandwich (and looking like a horror show), “The Big Nasty” — as is the case with many truly indulgent foods — tasted miles better than it looked. The baguette was fresh and withstood the dampness of the endeavor, the roast beef was tasty and plentiful, and the gravy was wonderful and tied everything together. Not a sandwich, not a Hot Brown, and not in the correct city, but I feel I made the right choice.

Sandwich Discussion – Scanwiches

Scanwiches is a website run by one or more sandwich enthusiasts. There’s no discussion to speak of, only a presentation of each sandwich in a full frontal sort of view, presumably achieved by taking half of a sandwich and pressing it up against the glass of a scanner. I could do with more information about each sandwich, but as eye candy and occasional inspiration it does the trick. There is to be a book published later this year, a collection of scanned sandwiches, and to promote this book the website had a “fanwiches” contest, inviting readers to submit their own scanned sandwiches. The wining sandwich looked powerfully intriguing, and I would relish the opportunity to try it. Some of the sandwiches deemed runners up, though, left me a bit puzzled.

This is the “New Orleans Surf ‘n Turf Po’Boy,” a monstrosity of fried oysters, fried green tomatoes, potato chips, bacon, lettuce, caramelized onions, andouille sausage and a Cajun remoulade on a baguette. The longer I look at this the more ridiculous it gets. I suspect some manner of trickery was needed to get it to scan, and further that no amount of voodoo would render this tower of quasi-related ingredients edible. It’s too much, much too much. If you could get your hands around it you’d quickly find them full of oysters and sausage and chips as one ingredient after another shot out the sides. The baguette is a fine bit of bread but it’s entirely wrong for something like this, any pressure you apply to get through that crust is going to send the rest of the sandwich scattering. This is less a sandwich, an associate of mine remarked, and more some unholy salad. I couldn’t agree more. But the questionable judgement on display here pales in comparison to the howling errors made in a post a few days following the above.

That’s a lobster roll, and a lobster roll is not a sandwich. Shady entrepreneurs make this mistake in the name of profit, and ignorant children do so because they do not know any better, but I have no idea what excuse the people at Scanwiches have.

Buffalo Stew Sandwich, Tommy’s Joynt, Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA

The so-called Buffalo Stew Sandwich at Tommy's Joynt, San Francisco

Tommy’s Joynt is a fairly notable establishment, and has been serving their particular brand of comfort food for a long, long time. (The decorations include a flag with only a few dozen stars, a wagon wheel, and an inflatable football promoting the Bud Bowl. Exact age would be hard to pin down.) With age, though, they have yet to find wisdom. I’ll start with the punchline: Tommy’s understanding of sandwiches is about as solid as his spelling. I would try and show more patience, both with Tommy and my own meager joke, but I’m tired of this nonsense. Tired, just dog tired of getting my hopes up for a fine, interesting sandwich, and having those hopes stomped back down by some no-account restaurateur who can’t understand that, at the very least, you eat a sandwich with your hands.

Every so often after I write something about eating a sandwich, someone will point out to me that it could have gone differently. There was a topping bar, they’ll say, or tell me that I could have asked for no cheese. It’s all true, but that isn’t the point of my endeavor. I want to find the wonderful sandwiches where others have dreamed them, exactly how they have dreamed them. To search for dreams, though, leaves one open to finding nightmares.

I ordered the Buffalo Stew Sandwich because it was, by far, the most interesting thing available. Think of it: A sandwich wherein the main ingredient is stew! It’s exciting! The french dip demonstrates that a sandwich can handle liquid, even a considerable amount. I could think to myself how I might go about making a stew sandwich, and I was intensely curious about how the tinkerers at Tommy’s Joynt had carried out such an idea. But my curiosity turned to dismay almost immediately. After slicing a french roll in half, the man making the item took the top half of the roll and sliced it in half again. I was shocked, and as has happened before, that I did not storm out immediately must be chalked up to that state of shock. That extra slice left me in stunned silence, knowing that whatever other steps were taken in preparing this so-called sandwich, they would be a waste. It turned out to be fairly simple, just a ladle full of stew over the bottom of the roll. I was issued a fork and a knife, a rattling mockery of the obvious fact that I could not pick up and eat what had been sold to me as a sandwich.

What I find myself thinking over, again and again, is how this just wasn’t necessary. Get a roll with a good, sturdy crust. Scoop a bit of the bread out of one half, give yourself a pocket to sit your portion of stew in. Serve me that with a few extra napkins and you’ll hear no complaint. It isn’t hard! Tommy could go to sleep at night knowing he understood and respected sandwiches. The extra napkins might cut into the margins a bit, but it’s tough to put a price on a good night’s sleep. The last time this happened I expressed a bit of shame over my own mistakes. Not being careful in my reading of the menu, making unwarranted assumptions, etc. I’ll take on no such blame here. Going forward I will make no changes to how I conduct myself. I am not in the wrong here. Invite me over to watch cricket, I’ll blame you when we sit down and tune in to handball. It maybe a lovely game, but for the love of god, I wanted a sandwich! Is that so much to ask!? I’m getting away from myself. It comes down to this: I believe, and I refuse to stop believing, that a person should be able to walk into an establishment that purports sells sandwiches, order a sandwich, and be served a sandwich.

The so-called “Italian Beef Beer Bread” – Four Peaks Brewery, E 8th St, Tempe, AZ

The so-called "Italian Beer Bread" at Four Peaks Brewery, Tempe, AZ

A wrap masquerading as a sandwich. Sickening.

This is, sadly, familiar territory. This is the listing from the Four Peaks Brewery menu: “Lean roast beef with sautéed red onion, green peppers, mushrooms mozzarella and garlic honey mayo rolled in our fresh baked beer bread.” I cannot tell you how disappointed I was when the above was brought to my table.

I am left wondering who is to blame. It was only in going back and preparing to write this post that I actually noticed those words. “Rolled in.” In the poor lighting of the outdoor patio, and in my haste, I missed the crucial words that would have tipped me off to the fact that I was going to be served a wrap, and not a sandwich. Is my disappointment solely my fault? The heading for this section of the menu is “Alehouse Sandwiches.” Was it unreasonable of me to assume that any and all items under that listing would be sandwiches? When one considers beer bread, a tortilla hardly comes to mind. And that is what troubles me, friends. What can be excused by carelessness and unwarranted assumptions on my part can only be explained by callous disregard on the part of whoever decided to call this a sandwich. This is a wrap. I know that a lot of things have changed over the years, and words do not always mean what they once did, but a sandwich is not a wrap. It is not now, and it has never been. But someone at Four Peaks Brewery is either unaware of this or simply does not care. I made a mistake in not reading the menu closer, I’ll admit to that much. But I did not make the mistake repeatedly, day in and day out. I did not serve a customer expecting a sandwich piled on hearty beer bread a bit of limp flat bread. I try to give restaurants the benefit of the doubt, I don’t grill the waitstaff about the construction of their sandwiches. I will take responsibility for not ferreting out the fact that someone with such disrespect for sandwiches designed the menu at Four Peaks Brewery, but the responsibility for so abusing my trust lies entirely with the establishment.

In the end, I hope this will exist as a cautionary tale. Read your menus carefully. There are those out there who, through ignorance or recklessness, will try to serve you a wrap and call it a sandwich.

This is not a sandwich.

Porky's Revenge
The Porky’s Revenge, Hank’s Eats, Polk St, San Francisco, CA

I have sat down to write this post several times and each time I have refrained from doing so. This blog is supposed to be a celebration of things, an honest expression of a love. That need not include, I thought, rantings from me about intent and honest representation and the proper axis of a sandwich. No one likes a curmudgeon and so up until now I have avoided all of this discussion. I will apologize in advance for what I am about to say but I cannot take it anymore.

Though I have been known to spend quite some time considering a menu there was no such lengthy deliberation at Hank’s Eats. The Porky’s Revenge advertised slow roasted pork shoulder topped with tomatoes, onions and Hank’s Special Sauce. I expected just the kind of simple but delicious sandwich I’ve been seeking out these days, and what I got might best be described as an overgrown taco!

The idea of what is and is not a sandwich comes down to the obvious and the intent. The obvious is the precious few simple qualifications that must be met, namely bread on the top and the bottom and some other ingredient in the middle. The intent is what makes it a sandwich and what ends up disqualifying the Porky’s Revenge. In order to be a sandwich the intent must be for the food to be eaten aligned horizontally. It is in this that we find sandwiches in harmony with our mouths and indeed our larger selves. It is in this that we find each bite encompassing the sum total of the ingredients in the sandwich, all of them represented in their proper proportions. It is in this that a sandwich becomes a sandwich.

There are sandwiches served on rolls, even sandwiches served on rolls that weren’t sliced all the way through. What separates them from what is pictured above is that, despite a lack of care or effort from whomever wields the knife, they intend to be sandwiches. They align themselves in the proper way, as we have known sandwiches for hundreds of years.

Items like the Porky’s Revenge are closer to the taco or even the hot dog than they are the sandwich. I have no grudge against an establishment that wishes to sell such an item, and indeed there are times in my life when that’s just the kind of meal I might enjoy. Those times are not when I have ordered a sandwich.