During my visit to the US this past fall, the Atlanta paper ran an online thread soliciting reader recommendations for the best bánh mì, or Vietnamese sandwich, in town. Most votes led people up and down Buford Highway which is the heart of the city’s ethnic cuisine scene. Yes, I have sampled the sandwiches at a couple of the stripmall delis such as Lee’s Bakery and Viet Tofu and really enjoy them. Back over here in my newly adopted hometown, a serious craving for such a baguette and its layers of meat, vegetables, and fresh herbs got me looking forward to returning to Atlanta to try the readers’ recommendations.
I hungrily looked out my window at the miles of urban sprawl below and thought wait a minute. Hold up here. I am in Vietnam, not the US. Why am I wondering when will I return to Atlanta to eat a bánh mì when I have an entire city of the real deal right here? I asked for my coworkers’ recommendations and my buddy Ryan told me that a traditional sandwich can be had right across the street from Hog’s Breath Saloon at the base of the Bitexco Tower. A $2 cab ride downtown sure does beat a 23 hour plane ride home, so off I went in search of an afternoon snack. OK, so where is the woman? Across the street from the Bitexco Tower, my choices were a man banging away on a typewriter, some sort of office supply shop, and a dirty storefront selling something wrapped in banana leaves and string… No bánh mì here.
A girl napping in a sidewalk lounge chair gave me a bored look and I asked if her dirty little store sells bánh mì. Her answer was a blank state like what the hell is this white boy doing up in my face speaking his weird language. So I got out the Iphone and Googled images of a sandwich and she pointed back across the street to Hogs Breath. Not a single word ever cross her lips, just an irritated stare and a sigh as she went back to her sidewalk nap. Look lady, I get it. You deal with tourists all day probably, but I live here. And no, I am not here to eat American chain food in the base of a skyscraper with the other expats. I want to eat some real Vietnamese.
I wandered down the street and noticed a woman doing a fairly busy business from her metal pushcart. She had sandwiches. Is this Ryan’s lady? Maybe that lounge chair got in the way and caused a relocation. It looked halfway sanitary. This is what I came downtown for afterall so I studied the cart for about three minutes before deciding to bite.
Grey-white pork cold cut slices, birdseye peppers, a fluffy baguette with a light crispy shell, spicy soy sauce, and cucumber wedges came out of every corner of that packed cart to make my sandwich. The cold cuts, or chả lụa, is pork pounded into a paste and then mixed with potato starch and fish sauce. What must just be utterly unappealing at this stage is then wrapped tightly in a banana leaf and boiled until firm. Chả lụa keeps ok out of the fridge evidently so no worries eating it from the street cart. I guess people live and learn over the years what blows up a stomach or not. The salt from the fish sauce must be one hell of a preservative if it keeps this spongy pork roll alive in the Saigon heat. Just imagine what it’s doing to our insides. 15,000 dong (about 75 cents) later I had mine in hand to find out.
I will admit I nervously ate that sandwich and full on expected it to revisit me later on. I can report, however, all is well and I enjoyed it. Later in the day I got to thinking about that thread in the Atlanta paper. How about this for a reader suggestion…the most authentic sandwich comes from a friendly lady eking out a living in the shadow of the Bitexco Tower and a new Subway outlet two blocks away. I just hope in tomorrow’s Saigon, the downtown streetscape doesn’t leave this type of street food a relic of the past.