The Vegan Banh Mi: It Can Be Good

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I was talking about banh mi last night with a friend whose Vietnamese American coworkers are obsessive lunch-hunters. When I told him my favorite ID sandwich shop was Seattle Deli, he replied, "Yeah, Seattle Deli's all right, but I preferred the pork banh mi a block away." He couldn't remember the name of the shop, though, so he gave directions, I took notes, and today I bussed over to Little Saigon. His rec turned out to be Saigon Deli on Jackson between 12th and 14th (which you shouldn't confuse, of course, with New Saigon Deli or Saigon Vietnam Deli). Saigon Deli's pork banh mi was pretty good -- warm roll, decent amount of pork -- but somehow it wasn't good enough to win me over. Since most of the white people in line with me were ordering tofu banh mi, I asked for one as well to bring back to our resident vegetarian, Sara Brickner. Generosity's easy when a) you have an expense account and b) a tofu sandwich only costs $2.

Cookbook author Mai Pham once explained to me that in Vietnam, the classic banh mi contained steamed ham, thinly sliced head cheese, and pork-liver pate. You can find it on Saigon Deli's menu as the dac biet, or house special, banh mi. (Side note: One of the most amazing street snacks I ate in Hanoi were finger-sized baguettes, kept warm in a brazier and filled with pate and fried shallots.) In America, with its passion for Dagwoodian creativity, sandwich shop owners have come up with fillings like curried catfish and roasted duck.

Saigon Deli's tofu banh mi was as decent as the pork. What's not to like about all those pickled vegetables, after all, and the tofu was pressed and marinated in enough soy that you could taste it underneath the cilantro and green chiles. But Sara preferred this tofu banh mi, which I brought back to the office on Friday:

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This one is from Sub Sand, another shop that I've been hearing about from Amazonians for months. Sub Sand is taking the Americanization of banh mi even further, selling sandwiches like ham and cheese and roast turkey in addition to the now-classic grilled pork and grilled chicken. While Sub Sand's owners warm up the tofu in the microwave, they carefully stack slices of romaine, tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers, thick pickled carrot and daikon sticks, and green chiles. Not only is the OCD effect welcome, it yields the most colorful banh mi I've ever eaten.

Now, to me, a banh mi isn't worth eating if the bread isn't heated up in the toaster so the papery golden exterior showers you with crackly flakes every time you bite in, making your shirt look like you have the world's most extreme case of dandruff. And this is the one characteristic that Sub Sand, in its quest for assimilation, gives up. In compensation, the sandwich makers saturate the tofu slices in sweetened soy sauce and black pepper and amp up the flavor with the pungent crunch of the red onion. Sara thinks it's the best vegetarian sandwich she's ever tasted.

I assigned her to eat at Hillside Quickie and tell me whether that opinion still holds. Any place else she should check out?

 
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