When I was a kid my dad made some pretty foul sandwiches he expected us to eat. Liverwurst and onion. Anything with sauerkraut. Sardines and mustard. Yes, the good ones like salami were sometimes few and far between. Unfortunately, one sandwich out there trumps them all. I never dreamed asking myself how bad can a bánh mì could be would ever occur in Vietnam.
In the Cho Lon area of Saigon (otherwise known as Chinatown), a mobile sandwich cart on Hai Truong Lan Ong Street near Hang Dao Street parks in the street, and motorbikes must careen around it. Now that is one way to scare up some drive through business. As I debated the pros and cons of ingesting uncharted foods served amidst swirling traffic, a steady procession of customers lacking my inhibitions walked or rolled up for baguettes.
A steady plume of smoke enveloping me whetted my curiosity even more with that seductive smell of charring meats. Well, here goes nothing I thought as I joined the queue. Tiny green herb wraps lay impaled on thin wooden sticks over the heat. Sandwich man quickly slides a bunch of them off their skewers and into an awaiting crunchy baguette with one skillful swoop of his hand. So far so good and this one seemed to hold delicious promise.
I can only describe these green wraps as bite size packets of dubious animal product. They taste strongly of licorice. I detest licorice and anything even faintly smacking of licorice. Sorry all you licorice lovers out there. That is just one flavor I don’t understand. The meat’s mushy consistency reminded me of steak tartare, and of course my mind went into hyperdrive worrying if enough heat had permeated the leafy skin to kill any lingering nasties.
Fish mint garnished it all. How do we even begin to describe fish mint? Imagine an innocuous piece of spinach. Now marinade the leaf in the oily liquid found in the bottom of a sardine can. Now bite into it and enjoy the fishiness now invading your unsuspecting tastebuds. Are you getting the picture here? Licorice, fish, and mushy meat. What a combo.
I saved this sandwich for research purposes and carted it around for three more hours in a plastic bag. I brought it to work the next morning for my cabin crew to properly identify, and both of them lit up with ear to ear smiles. “You know Hang Dao Street? I like very much!” they both exclaimed. And let me add that two plastic bags tightly tied and then places in a sealed ziplock bag barely contained the odor of this beast the identified as bánh mì bò lá lốt or beef with wild betel leaf. Choi oi!!
Want to recreate the taste at home? Take a piece of black licorice. Now shove it up an anchovy. Wrap it inside a piece of white bread with hot sauce. Now enjoy. This one left me yearning for the palate numbing plastic tastes at Subway. A turkey sandwich there never sounded so good.