About 28 years ago, Truc Tran's family began selling sandwiches from a van not unlike those that now sell Hispanic delicacies. Just like the taco trucks, their main clientele were recent immigrants who were eager for the food of their homeland. The Tran family brought the recipe, which they now serve at Banh Mi Sao Mai, the restaurant they operate in New Orleans East, from the village of Sao Mai, where they lived before coming to the United States.
In Vietnamese, "banh mi" translates both as "bread" and the sandwich using that bread. Here, banh mi have become known as "Vietnamese po-boys." That name may have started as a shorthand way of describing the sandwich to curious locals, but it's never been more accurate: Banh mi have, among their many charms, the distinction of being one of the least expensive meals you can eat in New Orleans. Where some po-boys will set you back $10 or $12, at prices between $2.50 and $4, banh mi are still within the reach of poor boys and girls.
Vietnamese cuisine has been affected heavily by outside sources, though some are more obvious than others. The Chinese introduced stir-frying and the use of chopsticks. India shaped aspects of the entire region by introducing spices and techniques that show up in curries and stews. From the French, the most recent influence on Vietnam, the obvious contribution is the introduction of wheat for bread.
In each case, the Vietnamese have incorporated the influences into something of their own. There may not be a better example of that than banh mi. What started as a Vietnamese interpretation of French sandwiches became distinctly Vietnamese, with only the format –– bread and fillings –– remaining.
Wheat is an expensive proposition in a country more generally suited to the production of rice. Whether it was to meet increased demand or for local tastes, the Vietnamese turned to adding rice flour to their bread dough. The mixture of rice and wheat, it turns out, produces a bread that has a light crumb –– or interior texture –– and a crispy exterior that is pretty close to what we call "French bread" in New Orleans.
New Orleans French bread is not something you'll find if you visit France. It has a much lighter crumb than is typical of continental bread, which, combined with its crisp crust, makes it perfect for sandwiches. The French bread we use to make po-boys is only one of the reasons that they are so distinctive, but it is probably the best explanation as to why, with certain exceptions, you can't get a decent po-boy more than 100 miles from New Orleans. Anyone can fry shrimp or oysters or roast a good piece of chuck. But if you can't duplicate the extremely perishable French bread we use for po-boys, you just can't duplicate the sandwich.
That's true as well of the banh mi. Without the light, slightly chewy and crusty banh mi loaf, there is no banh mi sandwich. The crumb may not be quite as light as that of our French bread, but it's certainly lighter than the traditional French baguette. If you want a very good example of the French tradition, head to La Boulangerie (4600 Magazine St.), where you'll find a crusty, dense-crumbed loaf that will compete with many you'll find in Paris. If your curiosity about the origin of banh mi is piqued, you might also visit the St. James Cheese Co., where they make an excellent jambon-beurre with the addition of brie, served on a baguette from La Boulangerie.
The jambon-beurre is one of the origins of banh mi; in its most basic form, it's simply sliced ham inside of a buttered baguette. Bread, ham or pâté and butter became, in the hands of Vietnamese cooks looking to use more familiar ingredients, so much more.
There are still some French influences to be seen in the more common banh mi available in New Orleans. In addition to ham that's more like what you'd find in a French home, you will also find "pâtés" made of pork or chicken liver used as a filling. Mayonnaise or, less frequently, butter are still essential condiments for most banh mi, and pickled daikon radish and carrot are at least reminiscent of the tart cornichons more typical of French food. The lettuce that might grace a French sandwich is generally replaced with cilantro, and fresh cucumber adds another textural element. Finally, and in a complete break with the French tradition, most banh mi feature jalapeños.
Vietnamese immigration to Louisiana began in earnest after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. The largest populations settled locally in Orleans and Jefferson parishes — a boon for local food lovers, because the Vietnamese brought with them a culinary tradition well suited to our climate and our tastes.
Just as it's difficult to find a truly bad plate of red beans and rice in New Orleans, it's hard to find a bad banh mi sandwich. There are too many aficionados of both dishes to sustain a bad restaurant for long.
The premiere bakery for banh mi is Dong Phuong in New Orleans East. Most of the banh mi you'll sample in the area are served on the excellent bread baked there. In addition to a host of other baked goods, you can also find one of the best deals on banh mi in town at the bakery, which serves 16 different varieties. The most expensive banh mi on the menu — a roasted shrimp patty — will run you $3.55, and most are $2.85 or less for a large stuffed sandwich.
Further down Chef Menteur at Banh Mi Sao Mai, the style of banh mi is somewhat different. They do not use mayonnaise or butter on their sandwiches, opting instead for homemade chile sauce. The sandwiches at Sao Mai (there are only five) are generally served hot, which is also unusual. Most banh mi are made with cold cuts of one variety or another, although calling Vietnamese charcuterie "cold cuts" does not do them justice.
Karl Takacs of Pho Tau Bay on the West Bank has been eating banh mi all his life. He recalls the restaurant serving them in the early 1980s, not long after it opened. Back then, he said, Vietnamese fishermen would come in as early as 8 a.m. to buy 20 or more of the sandwiches to take offshore. There are a dozen banh mi on the menu at Pho Tau Bay these days.
Tan Dinh in Gretna has seven banh mi on the menu, all at $4.95, ranging from the classic combination of roast pork, meatball, pork "loaf" and pâté to a grilled lemongrass chicken version. Tan Dinh also gets its bread from Dong Phuong, and theirs is a very traditional version of the sandwich. There are also several stews served with banh mi bread, including marinated roast duck au jus; a goat stew with carrots and baby taro root; and the seemingly ubiquitous bo kho, a stew of beef and carrots.
At Frosty's Caffe in Metairie, which has one of the only banh mi in the area not served on bread from Dong Phuong (the owners also operate a bakery), banh mi are served alongside more familiar fillings such as grilled chicken Caesar and avocado and cheese. That's not to suggest that the banh mi aren't excellent; Frosty's chargrilled pork is one of the better versions around. But just as many Vietnamese restaurants also serve Chinese cuisine, Frosty's has options for those who want something more familiar.
The very best banh mi are made at restaurants that prepare all of the fillings in-house, and most of the best places in the area to find banh mi follow that stricture. At Pho Tau Bay, Banh Mi Sao Mai and Tan Dinh, all of the charcuterie, garnishes and other fillings are made on the premises.
Nationwide, banh mi have been making something of a splash over the past couple of years. In New York City, banh mi are a current trendy food item. In Philadelphia, they're called "Vietnamese hoagies"; elsewhere, they're "Saigon subs." Some of the variations on banh mi may seem a bit unorthodox: There are banh mi made with traditional pho ingredients, such as brisket, at Nha Toi in Brooklyn, and at Silent H, also in New York, there is a banh mi made with locally produced kielbasa. Traditionalists may cry blasphemy, but consider it more adaptation. Just as the original makers of banh mi adapted the French sandwich to their own ends, today's chefs are taking it a step further.
A few local chefs at fine-dining restaurants have taken their love of banh mi to their menus. Donald Link's Cochon Butcher periodically has a banh mi on the menu that combines head cheese and a pork liver pâté very close to local "liver cheese," along with bread from Dong Phuong, homemade mayonnaise, pickled vegetables and cilantro. It's a very traditional take on banh mi and a fascinating example of how French charcuterie has influenced both New Orleans and Vietnamese sausage-making.
At Boucherie, chef Nathanial Zimet has a po-boy on the menu that combines duck confit with cinnamon-pickled carrots and spiced pecans. It's a far cry from the typical banh mi, but still recognizable if you know the context. Chef Minh Bui's Cafe Minh has several nontraditional variations of the sandwich, from a grilled portobello mushroom to a tempura-fried, five-spice chicken breast. All are served on bread from Dong Phuong and garnished with the traditional cilantro, pickled radish and carrot, as well as a mixture of lettuces more commonly found in salads. Bui's is definitely one of the more adventurous Vietnamese restaurants in town, and his sandwiches, which the menu describes as "inspired by" banh mi, are yet another example of the sandwich's malleability. All three restaurants regularly use bread from Dong Phuong on any sandwich calling for French bread.
If banh mi are the latest trend in big cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Boston, here the sandwich is just another element of our rich food culture, one we've appreciated for decades. It's also the result of our good fortune in receiving a people whose native cuisine fits so well into our climate and way of life. If you've not experienced the banh mi sandwich, you should, and you should ask questions if you have them. In every restaurant I visited while researching this story, the folks behind the counter were happy to share information, despite the occasional language barrier.
Almost none of the banh mi served in New Orleans will cost you more than $5, and many are under $3. For handcrafted sandwiches of this quality, that's a bargain any way you look at it. And there's no better reason for banh mi to share the honored name of "po-boys."