A friend back home was excited to try the Vietnamese sub sandwich at his office’s food court. So excited indeed that he ate two in so many days. Andrew must have sensed my mounting skepticism of cafeteria Vietnamese food so within minutes a couple of pictures arrived in my inbox to prove my doubts otherwise. So we got to wondering how authentic a panini looking sandwich in Holmdel, New Jersey could possibly be. Andrew ticked off an ingredient list such as roast pork, lettuce, pickled cucumber, sweet garlic chili sauce, mayonnaise with a kick, roast pork and some Asian slaw constituting what was indeed labeled “banh mi” on the shelf tag.
Asian slaw? This vinegary creation seems more the domain of some TGI Fridays or Red Robin cookie cutter calorie bomb. What is this cabbage product anyhow that even kicks up some tang in Wei Pei’s Caramel Chicken we recently compared to some local Saigon cuisine? The only slaw in this corner of Asia is the fully Americanized version on our airplane ham sandwiches. When Andrew mentioned the banh mi actually tasted more like a Cuban sandwich, I smugly thought to myself no way is proper Vietnamese found only blocks away from the Garden State Parkway. Andrew’s final thoughts were, “Yeah, I am sure it was an improvisation. That said, it tasted pretty good.”
What better setup for another installment of Throwdown! with Saigon than comparing two sandwiches an ocean apart. While on the hunt for the quintessential banh mi in its natural habitat, I passed a restaurant rather far from its own. Saigon’s third Subway outlet recently sprouted in District 1, and a large window sign reminds us to eat fresh. Why yes, Subway, thank you for the tip. I do eat fresh by walking on past you and finding locally sourced food rather than prefab parts flown in from abroad. And yes, I can report from experience a Cold Cut Combo or Italian B.M.T. in Vietnam is a carbon copy of any found in America. No confusion is left to the imagination as with Andrew’s New Jersey banh mi.
I did find some “fresh” in front of a camera store on busy Nguyen Hue Street. Actually I take that back. This stand called “Banh Mi Ba Lac” is actually in the camera store and run by an employee also selling 35mm film and picture frames. A steady stream of people driving motorbikes onto the sidewalk to grab a sandwich to go gave this joint some promise so I bit.
What would 75 cents buy in America? Certainly not a banh mi in New Jersey. But in downtown Saigon 75 Abraham Lincolns buy a crispy eight inch baguette whose soft inside is filled with roast pork, a smear of liverwurst like pate, cilantro, hot peppers, green onion, pickled carrots and daikon, cucumbers, soy sauce, and mayonnaise. I don’t detect any uppity Asian Slaw stuffed into this cheap eat. All this right from a cart at a camera shop. Buy your 35mm film and take a sandwich away. This would be like sticking a Subway inside the photo department at WalMart. Never mind, they already pretty much do. But does that sandwich taste as good as this camera store creation?
Banh mi in Jersey – Zero for authenticity but tasty indeed. Banh mi in Saigon – The picture perfect winner.