Large Vietnamese populations have made the classic street-vendor Vietnamese-French sandwich called banh mi a local staple in some parts of the country, especially California. In the Tampa Bay area, many Vietnamese restaurateurs cite difficulty getting the proper bread as the biggest impediment to putting them on the menu. Although banh mi have yet to grow on trees in these parts, there are several of note.
First you have to find it. My GPS guide lost her mind ("Recalculating. Make a U-turn.") before I found my way to the little shopping center that houses Saigon Deli (3962 W Waters Ave., Tampa; (813) 932-0300). It's open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and has had an avid following among the banh mi cognoscenti since 2005. Lam Le offers four varieties, all for $2.99, the best of which is the combo. Order at the counter and they assemble it pronto: Baguette, very crispy, slathered with pate (tasted chicken livery, but could have been other kinds of liver), head cheese and ham, pile up with crisp and sweet and just slightly spicy daikon and carrot matchsticks and soft pickley cucumbers, lots of cilantro (and somehow the cilantro stems add to the beauty) and a tang of fish sauce and jalapeno. Warm. And wrapped in waxed paper.
Add to that a to-go cup of Vietnamese coffee, very bitter, very sweet with condensed milk, lots of ice. And then a tiny tub of pudding that everyone else in line seems to be grabbing as an impulse buy from the top of the counter. The pudding is called che bap and it has corn and tapioca and coconut milk and vanilla and little strands of chewy seaweed and little reddish beans. It's served warm, thin and delicious. A high degree of difficulty when eaten while driving ("I'm sorry, officer, I spilled my che bap."), so eat that part upon safe arrival at your destination. With either the combo sandwich or the intensely marinated roast beef version, red with spices, it may be hard to wait.
Thuy Café moved just down from its little strip mall some months back, but now it's comfortably ensconced in a new St. Petersburg location (5944 34th St. N, No. 22; (727) 521-6406). Vietnamese variety shows on the TV and a few low-slung couches make it an easy place to while away an hour or two, but the bulk of the business seems to be quick in-and-outs for boba tea and one of 10 styles of banh mi.
Boba for the uninitiated is a curious thing. Milky tea or fruity smoothies (more than 50 flavors) get a big scoop of chewy tapioca balls, which you slurp up through an extra-fat straw. A Taiwanese craze that has swept the planet, new boba twists are added all the time. I had a fabulous boba milk tea with added coffee jellies that introduce intense bursts of coffee flavor as they blast out the top of the straw. It's as kooky as a beverage gets.
But back to the banh mi. They're all $3.50, the No. 1 being, well, the No. 1. It's called the "Vietnamese specialty" and you see them stacked up on the counter with their layers of meat — grilled pork, chewy pork skin, a salty ham they call jambon and a spongy, pate-like head cheese — awaiting a customer before the veggies and herbs are added in. There's a haunting five-spice flavor to this sandwich that adds an elegant note to the rest of the salty-sweet-sour-spicy goodness. Each of the meats is available solo (as are sardines, chicken, meatballs and tofu), but there's a textural symmetry achieved with the four together.
Still don't quite see the appeal? Think of a perfect BLT. Yup, drippy tomato, the salt of bacon, the crunch of iceberg, a little mayo to bring it all together and put pink dribbles down your shirt. It's like that, only with a little spice and little herbal zing.
Go to Hoa-Lan Food (450 34th St. N, St Petersburg; (727) 322-0722) and you don't have to wait around for anyone to make you a sandwich. There, between the cash registers and the produce section you'll see a stack of plastic-wrapped sandwiches, all $2.75, made in the wee hours by Hoa and Lan Phan. They've been grocers in St. Petersburg for 10 years, for 20 in Illinois before that, but they got into the banh mi business when they found the right bread at a bakery in Sarasota.
They make a stack of sandwiches each day, combining the classic cha lua ground pork mousse and a second variety called gio lua, which is flavored with fish sauce. Literally "silky lean meat paste," their gio lua is a little darker, pounded and steamed in banana leaves. These get layered with all the usual crunchy veggies and herbs, rice vinegar adding a sweet tang to the whole thing. I defy you to have more fun for under $3.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.