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OH MI, OH MY

A bahn mi, unstacked, from top: a fresh baguette or hoagie roll, crispy on the outside, fluffy inside; jalapenos or bird chilies, sliced thin; ham; cha lua, a spongy steamed pork roll seasoned with fish sauce; minced barbecued pork; sweet-sour pickled matchstick carrots and daikon radish; thinly sliced cucumber; fresh sprigs of cilantro; and a schmear of pork liver pate.

New York Times photo illustration

A bahn mi, unstacked, from top: a fresh baguette or hoagie roll, crispy on the outside, fluffy inside; jalapenos or bird chilies, sliced thin; ham; cha lua, a spongy steamed pork roll seasoned with fish sauce; minced barbecued pork; sweet-sour pickled matchstick carrots and daikon radish; thinly sliced cucumber; fresh sprigs of cilantro; and a schmear of pork liver pate.

The French were in Vietnam for nearly a century, the most curious evidence of this is the ubiquity of the baguette there. The Vietnamese baguette is a bit stumpier than its French cousin, a tad fluffier inside. And while the French may fill theirs primly with a little butter, maybe some ham or pate, the Vietnamese make Dagwood Bumstead look like a minimalist.

No doubt about it. The banh mi sandwich is a near-perfect food. Pronounced BUN-mee, it seems to be sweeping American cities this summer, each sandwich architect adding his or her own zesty spin.

Says B.T. Nguyen, chef/owner of Tampa's Restaurant BT, it's a Vietnamese street food found on every corner in Ho Chi Minh City. A baguette is split and piled high with a variety of sliced meats; pickled carrots, daikon radish, and cucumber; rounds of jalapeno or Thai chilies and a tangle of cilantro or other herbs.

"The French brought us the bread and the pate, and we incorporated our own ingredients. There's cha lua, our own form of pate, really a kind of ground pork mousse that is whipped, wrapped in a banana leaf and then steamed and sliced really thin," Nguyen says. "Then we use different cold cuts like fresh bacon, marinated and slow cooked."

What has made it a recent fixation among the country's foodies is twofold: First, they are cheap, starting as low as $2. And second, the assemblage of ingredients hits a range of sophisticated flavor notes. There's salty, sweet, spicy and aromatic, and textures that range from luxuriantly rich to crisp and light. Like any good 21st-century sandwich, it's inclusive — cooks have added Polish kielbasa, Creole sausage, chili mayonnaise, garlic butter, meatballs, chicken curry, grilled eel and lots of other goodies, depending on whim and their own cultural heritage.

Still, says Sing Hurt, co-owner of Tampa's Bamboozle Café, the bread is the trickiest part. "I was born in Vietnam but grew up in Tampa. We used to go to Orlando to find the bread. It's more like a hoagie, crisp on the outside but with a very soft interior. At Bamboozle, we get our bread par-baked and bake it off ourselves. It makes a huge difference."

Where to get good banh mi

Three Tampa Bay restaurants that do the dish right:

Saigon Deli: 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. 3962 W Waters Ave., Tampa; (813) 932-0300).

Thuy Cafe: Lots of boba tea and 10 styles of banh mi. 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. 5944 34th St. N, No. 22; (727) 521-6406.

Hoa-Lan Food: 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. 450 34th St. N, St. Petersburg; (727) 322-0722.

Do it yourself

For a moderately difficult recipe for a killer banh mi sandwich, see food.tampabay.com.

OH MI, OH MY 07/30/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 30, 2009 5:30am]

    

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