Though the below stands for posterity, it is no longer true. Please consider the full listing of the 10 best sandwiches I’ve ever had.
This is a bánh mì from Bánh Mì Saigon, and it is the best sandwich in America. Now, I have not eaten every sandwich in America, and I do not aspire to. The conclusion that this sandwich is the best was not reached by poll, not by formula, not by proclamation. It simply is. The #1 from Bánh Mì Saigon is not an appeal to reason, it is an argument for sandwiches as a religion.
The namesake sandwich at Bánh Mì Saigon is listed as #1 on the handwritten menu board, and if we’re being completely honest here it is similarly inscribed in my heart. The sandwich is not complicated, and it is the pursuit of perfection of a classic formula that seems to raise the sandwich above its competitors. A baguette grilled to a crunch holds seasoned, diced pork grilled to chewy perfection. Cilantro makes its distinct mark, shredded onion and carrot join cucumber to contrast the pork with a bit of fresh snap, and a slice of pork roll and a bit of mayo smooth things out, bringing it all together. It is everything a sandwich should be, it is flavorful and complete. Rather than merely holding things together, the bread accentuates the overall sandwich.
Bánh Mì Saigon is located in the back half of a jewelry store. After you order your sandwich you can stand there as the jewelry store employees stare at you, no doubt long tired of people who take up space but don’t buy any jade Buddha pendants. I have always felt it a little bit awkward, but before long you surrender your four dollars and leave holding the crowning achievement of the entire sandwich industry. This is the finest sandwich.
Addendum: There are two important additions to this post, involving questions and issues raised in the years following when the above was written. The first is here, and the second here.
I’ve just recently started to follow your blog, but I have to say I’m a big fan. I’m a huge “chef-at-home” and love a great sandwich.
I tried to recapitulate your Finest Sandwich. What I came up with was actually quite good, but not great. Definitely not Finest. I had the perfect bread, the veggies were good, and I quickly mixed up a mayo with a few extras (cayenne, paprika, ground black pepper, and a pinch of sugar). But I forgot the cilantro. In hindsight, I think the cilantro would have helped big time.
Inevitably, it often comes down to the meat. In my sandwich the pork was too spicy, but had decent flavors. I used an array of asian flavors, so it was a full complex flavor. The veggies starred in a sense by the way the were able to quickly blast your tongue with freshness after a meaty blow of spiciness. So next time: Get the meat right, get the sandwich right.
Long story short. Love the blog, love the sandwiches.
Any pointers towards what flavors go into the bánh mì pork?
Let me start by saying thanks for reading! Always nice to see another enthusiast in search of great sandwiches. I admire your willingness to wade into the territory of making your own banh mi. I’m unaware of any sort of canon answer, and every place has their own take on the same idea. It doesn’t help that banh mi is the name of the baguette, and so any sandwich between that baguette gets the name. But the particular type I so revere is grilled pork, occasionally called BBQ pork, though that’s more often something totally different. Thịt Nướng is what you’re looking for, and to add to the confusion that particular style of meat encompasses a multitude of recipes across all kinds of dishes. If all of that seems jumbled I apologize. I don’t have an exact answer, and the path you’re on goes a thousand different ways. From what I’ve gathered, here’s what I can tell you:
There isn’t a single recipe for Thịt Nướng that doesn’t include garlic. Start with smashed garlic and build on that. Fish sauce is another thing I would say is essential. There’s an element of sweetness, often honey or just plain sugar. Onion or shallot is almost always involved, minced as fine as possible. Black pepper will give you most of the spice, as I know the sandwich it’s more savory than spicy. (Adding a sliced jalapeño to the finished sandwich seems to be the standard way to boost the heat.) Beyond those ingredients, you’re own your own. Soy sauce, lemon grass, sesame oil (not too much, balanced with a neutral oil), and lime juice come and go in different recipes.
What cut of pork did you use? The texture is a big part of the sandwich, more chewy than tender. I could see it being achieved with a number of cuts, from the shoulder to chops.
I hope my answer is helpful, and I wish you all the luck in your attempts at making this wonderful sandwich.
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Melanie shot me your blog address, else I wouldn’t have spotted it. I have to weigh in on this particular topic.
After more than 40 years, I can still remember The Finest Sandwich I Have Ever Eaten. It was memorable not so much because of its bland ingredients, its ho-hum construction, the company I had it in (I barely recall two or three of a cast of dozens) or the ambiance of the surroundings (a drafty cafeteria with a great ocean view). None of that, but I’ll tell you what it was, though.
In August 1970 I spent a month at Hurricane Island, the Outward Bound school off the coast of Maine. (August in Maine isn’t quite as benign as it is in Connecticut, which I hadn’t known when scheduling that particular course.) One well-known element of the course involves a three-day solo on an island of one’s own, with nothing more than simple shelter (plastic sheeting), a sleeping bag, a gallon or so of fresh water, and some simple things like a fishing line and fishhook, rope to drape the plastic sheeting to make a tent, fire-starting implements, a knife and some cans to gather and cook food. Very elemental. Actually, I ate pretty well on my solo; the sandwich didn’t figure into that episode. (I had to throw in a red herring to counterbalance your anchovies from earlier.)
No, another part of the Hurricane Island course involves navigating, sailing (and often rowing) a heavy, overloaded (with a dozen and a half teenage boys and young men – we weren’t coed then) open lug rigged whaleboat through the Maine coastal waters. The boat doesn’t sail well, and it rows much worse. If you’re rowing against the wind and trying to make a particular objective (because the boats point badly, and if the wind is against you then you take down the sails and bend your back), then you are just SOL. And if you’re fighting the tide, too, then you’re SOL and even more tired for even longer. When the cold rain starts in the middle of that leg (recall that this is mid / late August in Maine), then you’re overtired (exhausted), cold, wet and hungry (because you can’t break for a meal in the middle of that leg, and lose more ground, and you can’t cook on the boat, and anyway, you’re out later than you expected to be and didn’t have a meal on board anyway.
So when you manage to make any landfall in the rain, even though it’s not “home” (not Hurricane Island, anyway) just before nightfall, then you make the landing anyway, throw up a few branches to make a halfhearted lean-to over a shallow pit in the ground and everyone pile into that to sleep like sardines in a can with that cold rain dripping in your face all night. And it’s okay, because it’s better than being in that damn boat fighting the wind and the tide and the dark and your own exhaustion.
But I’ll tell you this: When you get up early the next day still cold and tired and wearing yesterday’s wet clothes, now having missed two meals and any semblance of a good night’s sleep, and get back in the boat and row / sail back to Hurricane Island in time for a mid-morning snack, you might remember that snack 41 years later, too. After all this time, and having had many great meals in the meantime, I remember every bite of that sandwich: nondescript soft white bread, generic peanut butter and apple jelly (and I have never liked PBJ) – and it was manna. Wonderful. I remember every bite. (The sleep I had later was also the best of my life, I think, but I don’t recall any of that.)
I’ve been in a rowboat that was on the wrong end of the wind, and thinking back to that day had, when I finally set foot on dry land, someone handed me a sandwich I do believe I might have died enraptured, right then and there. Thanks for sharing your story.
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