If you’re a gourmand and live a.) in or near a major metropolitan area or b.) within driving distance of a city with a large Vietnamese population, you are one lucky person. Because you have ready access to some of the best – and inexpensive – food on the planet.
(With this photo, I can already sense there’s a split in my readership right now. Some of you are saying, “What in the hell is this?” and others are clawing at the screen, drooling.)
Friends, this is a bánh mì sandwich, a unique cultural fusion of Vietnamese meats, vegetables and condiments atop a baguette. The New York Times describes it as the “culinary embodiment of French colonial rule in Vietnam.” This is one of the most fascinating pieces of culinary trivia I’ve ever heard, and I guarantee you I’d have paid more attention in my history classes if every lesson was somehow linked to food.
Shortly after beginning this blog in late 2009, I became fixated on Vietnamese cuisine, with which I’m still enamored to this day. Despite growing up in Worcester, a city with a decent-sized Vietnamese population and plenty of fantastic pho restaurants, I didn’t discover the food until I’d moved away. Go figure.
Things often work out the way they’re supposed to, though, and I’m now living between two cities (Springfield and Hartford) with plenty of options for this cuisine. In Springfield, we’re no more than 15 minutes away from Dickinson Street, which is lined with Vietnamese restaurants, delis, bakeries and shops. (Vinh Chau is my favorite of the bunch; if we aren’t there once a month, something just feels wrong.)
Down the street is Can Tho Fast Food, a place I’m not sure I would ever have discovered if not for the divine intervention of my friend Ben, who stopped by one day and found out they were serving the best bánh mì in the area. I’d been resigned to the fact that I had to go to Hartford for my fix, so this was huge news.
Can Tho is a small spot; no more than a little luncheonette, but it’s great. They serve eight different varieties of bánh mì, with variations of pork (barbecued, pate, shredded, ham.) The crusty bread is spread with what they call “butter” (I’m not sure if it’s technically mayonnaise or aioli, but who cares, it’s perfect texturally) and loaded up with flavorful meats, pickled carrots and daikon, cilantro, cucumber and diced red Thai chiles that burn like a bitch if you’re not wild about spices. I like to add hoisin sauce to mine, and a touch of sriracha if the sandwich isn’t already spicy.
I stopped by yesterday with Kat for a takeout order. Six sandwiches and two bags of shrimp crackers = $21. It’s just that cheap. (The “loaded” sandwiches cost $4; regular varieties are $3.50.)
In fact, bánh mì are becoming so trendy that upscale restaurants are introducing their own riffs on the sandwich. At Dish Bar & Grill in Hartford, a chicken bánh mì with pate, carrot, cilantro and sriracha is priced at $13. At one point, Dirty Truth in Northampton served their own >$10 version, with duck confit as an extra add-on. Even a new Vietnamese restaurant in Windsor Locks, Pho 75, prices theirs at $7. (True story: My very first taste of bánh mì was actually one created by Copper Beech Inn for the 2010 Mohegan Sun WineFest.)
Without having tried the expensive versions, I can’t judge, but if I’m paying $13 for bánh mì, I’d rather have three authentic sandwiches.
In the Hartford area, you can find good, inexpensive bánh mì from a handful of spots in the city’s Parkville neighborhood, such as Kien Market and Hiep Phat. I’m partial to Huong Viet because it’s a one-stop shop for sandwiches and other delicacies like pho and bun (rice noodle dishes.) Same goes for Chau’s in Manchester. I haven’t been a fan of the bánh at A Dong in West Hartford, though.
I’m always on the lookout for new bánh spots, though, so please leave suggestions here if you’ve got them.