Bánh mì Basics
Roughly pronounced “bun me,” bánh mì is the “national sandwich of Vietnam,” wrote Andrea Nguyen in her book Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. “Bánh mì merges European and Asian food traditions. Each mouthful reflects how Vietnamese cooks co-opted French ideas to create new foods. All bánh mì use the same basic framework of ingredients… At Vietnamese delis, you make the call on the main protein element.” Nguyen doesn’t list what the framework of ingredients is, but in restaurants around Minneapolis and St. Paul, it’s a crusty and airy French baguette layered with house-made mayonnaise, sprigs of cilantro, slivers of pickled carrots (and, often, pickled Daikon radish), a slice of jalapeño pepper, and often a slice of cucumber. Protein options typically include grilled chicken, beef, or pork; cold cuts and pâtés (more co-opting of French ideas, this time, of charcuterie); meatballs; tofu; or mock duck.
Bánh mì prices range from $1.75 to $3.75, depending on the fillings; most hover around $2.50.
According to Nguyen’s Into the Vietnamese Kitchen and to Wikipedia, Vietnamese baguettes are made with wheat and rice flours. Nyugen says, “In the past, the best baguettes in Vietnam were made from wheat flour only and displayed an amazing crumb and crust.” All Twin Cities’ Vietnamese deli and bakeries The Heavy Table spoke with, Saigon, Jasmine Deli, and Trung Nam, use only wheat flour for their house-baked baguettes.
What makes a great bánh mì?
According to Lysa Bui, Saigon’s bánh mì stand out because of the bread. “Some others are too soggy, or too hard. Ours is just right.” Bui also takes pride in Saigon’s house-made French mayonnaise of eggs, heavy cream, salt and pepper, and a “French spice”; chicken liver pâté; pork meatballs in a tomato-based sauce; and steamed pork loaf.
Bui says Saigon’s recipes come from her uncle who “did this in Saigon his whole life.” Asked what adjustments her restaurant has had to make to the family bánh mì recipe for Minnesotan palates Bui says, “Basically, it’s the same.” Bui says that their grilled pork bánh mì, B5 on the menu at $2.75, is a customer favorite. “We marinate the pork in nine different spices, then grill it.”
According to Peter Bischoff, who has been a regular customer at Jasmine Deli (2532 Nicollet Ave. in Minneapolis) for about two years, says that Jasmine Deli’s sandwiches are “fabulous.” Bischoff says that the texture of the bread is important and that Jasmine Deli’s baguettes are “nice and crunchy. Not soft like commercial bread. The vegetables — pickled carrots, cilantro, and cucumber — are crisp and clean-tasting. And they are very affordable.” Bischoff’s favorite bánh mì is Jasmine Deli’s grilled beef, menu item S4 at $3.25, which he describes as “lean, with a smoky char.”
Le Truong, owner of Jasmine Deli and Jasmine Orchid at 304 Oak St. in Minneapolis (also, the upscale Jasmine 26 at 8 E. 26th St. in Minneapolis, which doesn’t serve bánh mì), says that their grilled chicken sandwich, s5 on the menu at $2.75, is their most popular sandwich. Truong has been running Jasmine Deli’s Eat Street location for nine years. “Everything is from scratch, from recipes that come from Vietnam. My mother — she taught us.” Truong believes that Jasmine Deli’s crusty bread, grilled charbroiled meats, and fresh vegetables are what his customers like. “Very fresh and lean and flavorful.”
Tony Le and Edna Nguyen have been running Trung Nam French Bakery, in a former Popeye’s Fried Chicken, at 739 University Ave. W. in St. Paul, since 1996. Prior to that, they were located on Minnehaha, where they’d been since 1989. Their daughter, Nicki, says that Trung Nam’s house-baked baguettes make their sandwiches special. Of all of the bánh mì sampled for this story, Trung Nam’s baguettes had the crispiest crust, which would shatter pleasingly with every crunchy bite. While Trung Nam makes its own mayonnaise, all their other bánh mì fillings, include pâté and pork, are purchased. Unlike Saigon and Jasmine Deli, who make their bánh mi to order and offer a variety of sandwich fillings, Trung Nam makes only the pork and pâté sandwich, topped with sliced cucumbers, sliced jalapeño peppers, marinated carrots, and sprigs of cilantro. They make them in advance and sell them neatly wrapped in butcher paper for $2.25. Trung Nam does a brisk morning business selling their buttery croissants. It’s hard to resist picking up a sandwich for your lunch.
While working on another assignment for the Heavy Table, I stopped at Shuang Hur Asian Grocery at 654 University Ave. in St. Paul and couldn’t resist buying one last bánh mì on impulse from the display at the cashier’s station, Ala Francaise French Bakery’s barbeque pork, liver pâté, pickled carrot, cilantro, jalapeño pepper, mayonnaise, and Maggi sauce. I found Ala Francaise French Bakery’s bánh mì to be on par with Trung Nam’s — good for $2.50 when you’re on the go — but without the exceptionally crispy bread.
When I called Pham’s Deli in Midtown Global Market on Lake St. in Minneapolis to see if they offer bánh mì, the woman who answered the phone said they are working towards adding sandwiches to their menu, but haven’t decided on a vendor for their baguettes. She said of the owner, Trung Pham, “He’s really picky about the bread.”