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The savory sandwich of Vietnam storms the streets of Charleston

Battle of the Bánh Mì

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This summer I've become a little obsessed with bánh mì sandwiches. And so has Charleston, it seems. Two years ago you couldn't even find a bánh mì sandwich in town. Now they're popping up everywhere — at the Marion Square farmers market, from the window of a roving food truck, on the menu boards at downtown sandwich shops.

They're remarkable creations, these Vietnamese street food delicacies. A parade of variations exist, but the most basic versions involve a baguette filled with various meats — pork liver pâté, pork belly, chicken, sausages — along with crisp, fragrant toppings like pickled radish and carrots, cucumber, jalapeños, and cilantro. Done right, it's a glorious blend of contrasting textures and flavors. You get a little crunch and a vinegary zip from the pickled radish and carrots, coolness from cuke and cilantro, and heat from the jalapeño. The meat adds smooth creaminess or a tender burst of flavor balanced by the crisp edges and chewy interior of the toasted baguette.

A classic East-meets-West story, the bánh mì dates back to France's colonial occupation of Vietnam. Originally, a "French sandwich" was a sort of bread-based charcuterie platter: butter, meats, and pâté spread onto a baguette and garnished with cornichons. It was a status symbol affordable only to the rich. After the French departed in 1954, Vietnamese cooks substituted local ingredients like cilantro and pickled radish and carrots, and over the next few decades bánh mì became a street food staple.

"In Vietnam they're as popular as the hot dog is in America," I overheard one bánh mì vendor tell a curious potential customer. One could imagine a similar conversation over a century ago at a county fair as a tentative diner inspected the booth selling frankfurters: "In Germany, they're as popular as oysters!"

Like hot dogs — and pizza and tacos, too — bánh mì is an example of America's culinary melting pot at work. A food starts off as an exotic dish found only in immigrant communities. Then, a few intrepid outsiders stumble upon it. Finally, if all the stars are aligned, it goes mainstream in a big way and, as the years pass, becomes so thoroughly a part of American eating that it's no longer thought of as "ethnic."

So, what could be a more all-American way to round out the summer than by sampling Charleston's new bánh mì options and tracking down the best local version of this Vietnamese classic?

As best I can tell, the first folks to sell bánh mì in Charleston were Jason Sakran and Jeremy Spencer, who set up their Street Hero tent at the downtown farmers market in the spring of 2011. They were stunned by the reception, selling out early every week for the first three months until they finally managed to transport enough ingredients to last through the day. This year, they made the leap to a brick and mortar restaurant, dubbed Bon Banh Mi, which opened just a few weeks ago on Spring Street in the old Remedy Market location. (The green Street Hero tent is still at the market each Saturday, too.)

Bon Bánh Mì's version gets the vote for best in town, for now - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Bon Bánh Mì's version gets the vote for best in town, for now

Street Hero offered a fairly traditional set of fillings, like ginger lemongrass chicken, five spice pork or tofu, and country pâté with cha lua. Since opening Bon Banh Mi, Sakran and Spencer have added some new variations like red curry beef short ribs (all are $8.50). These are layered into a toasted baguette slathered with chile mayo and dressed with cucumber, cilantro, and pickled carrots and daikon radish with a sprinkling of crispy fried shallots over the top.

Vietnamese sandwiches appear once a week at Butcher & Bee, too, where Wednesday is bánh mì day. The fillings vary each time, with lemongrass beef, fried chicken, roasted eggplant, and wax beans showing up recently. B&B tops theirs with a salad of carrots and cucumbers, a touch of jalapeño, and, in a nice twist, a generous sprinkling of crushed peanuts.

The small shards of lemongrass beef ($10) have a crusty sear around the edges, and the sandwich brims with bright flavors and little surprises — crunchy pops from the peanuts, minty blasts from fresh cilantro, zips of jalapeño heat.

Bánh mì is still street food in some local incarnations — or, at least, parking lot food. I caught up with the bright purple Auto-Banh food truck in a lot at the old Navy base in North Charleston, where a steady crowd of workers from the nearby businesses stood in line for big foil-wrapped sandwiches. There's a lemongrass grilled chicken ($7), garlic pork tenderloin ($8), and curry fried tofu ($8), all accompanied by traditional bánh mì veggies plus spicy mayo and a little cabbage.

The crispy chicken ($8) adds a Southern touch with chunks of fried chicken, pickled okra, and a little honey in the sriracha sauce, giving it an extra sweet and spicy bite. The Low-n-Slow Pork ($7) crams a big wad of pulled pork inside the baguette, and its soft, chewy texture makes a pleasing contrast against the crispness of the toppings.

This spring, bánh mì made it all the way to the heart of downtown with the opening of CO, an upscale bánh mì and noodle bar on King Street. Alongside gyoza dumplings and steaming bowls of noodles, CO now offers seven varieties of bánh mì, including caramel pork ($8), swordfish katsu ($9), and "xo" shrimp in a sweet and spicy brandy sauce ($9).

In a Korean fusion, CO's new short rib bánh mì ($9) layers hearty shreds of beef with spicy kimchi and aioli laced with gochujang, a pungent Korean red pepper paste. The short rib is superbly tender and flavorful, though the sheer volume of the meat knocks the delicate balance of flavors out of alignment. A more traditional route is the five-spiced pork ($9), whose thin-sliced pork belly has a fragrant touch of spice and blends nicely with the crisp carrots and cukes.

Pair these creations with CO's signature Singapore sling ($9) — a grenadine-tinged blend of gin, benedictine, and triple-sec — and it's a sure sign the bánh mì is making the leap from a humble quick lunch to late night munchie.

Bánh mì arrived in the United States with the wave of Vietnamese immigrants after the fall of Saigon in 1975. The sandwiches first gained attention in Los Angeles in the late 1980s at delis in Little Saigon that lacked English menus but drew lines out the door once local diners discovered they could get delicious sandwiches for two bucks or less.

The Korean short rib at CO is tender and flavorful, but the volume of meat knocks the flavors out of balance - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The Korean short rib at CO is tender and flavorful, but the volume of meat knocks the flavors out of balance

Bánh mì quickly took off in other places with large Vietnamese immigrant communities, like New York City, Houston, and the Pacific Northwest. Here in the South, Atlanta has a flourishing corridor of bánh mì shops along Buford Highway, as does New Orleans, where bakeries and delis specializing in "Vietnamese po boys" line New Orleans' Chef Menteur Highway.

Charleston has not seen much in the way of Vietnamese immigration, so bánh mì has been slower to make it our way. When it did arrive, it was brought by American-born food lovers who had discovered the sandwiches in other cities.

Bon Banh Mi's Jason Sakran came to Charleston from Washington, D.C., and he was surprised to find no one serving the great little Vietnamese sandwiches he remembered from the District's food trucks. So, he and Jeremy Spencer did a little research and came up with their own version. "The complex layers of flavor just blew us away," Spencer says, and they knew they had found their product.

Thomas Howell of Auto-Banh got his first taste in San Francisco. "It basically came from traveling on the West Coast and eating them all the time," he says. "I've always been a fan of Southeast Asian cuisine and really loved the flavors." The sandwiches seemed the perfect speciality for a food truck, allowing him and his business partner Jeanine Cafaro to focus on just one thing and do it well.

At first, Howell estimates, about half the customers ordering from his truck hadn't tasted a bánh mì before, but that has changed quickly. "More and more," he says, "it seems like people who come up to the truck are searching them out, saying, 'I had a bánh mì in Atlanta or out west.' It's good to be able to supply that to people."

As the sandwiches have passed into the hands of new purveyors, they've begun taking on new forms. "We're definitely an Americanized bánh mì place," Howell admits. "I'm basing these sandwiches off the flavors I've experienced eating them in the U.S. It's very much an American thing."

At first, Howell and Cafaro stuck to more traditional ingredients: tofu, grilled pork, grilled chicken. But now they're putting their own spin on things. "The crispy chicken is our Southern take on bánh mì," Howell says. "We're using our own local influences with it." Cafaro used to work for Sticky Fingers, so a pulled pork version was a natural, too. She and Howell even came up with their own Chinese-inspired barbecue sauce for it.

For me, such innovations are welcome. The pickled okra on Auto-Banh's crispy chicken adds a sharp briny bite, and there's a burst of sweetness from the honey sriracha followed by a lingering heat that really grows on you. The soft, smooth strands of pulled pork are fully in-step with the complex textural dance that make for a good bánh mì.

That dance is starting to influence sandwiches in other genres, too. Over at the Tattooed Moose on Morrison Drive, the "Lucky #1" sub is a sort of playful spin on a bánh mì, taking the core elements and pushing them over the top in a very American sort of way. Powerful housemade kimchi and long, thin slices of cucumber offer the crunch, while a big wad of fried onions piles on even more crispness. The pork belly has a sort of fragrant five-spice seasoning to it, and it's sliced very thin and seared till crisp.

The Lucky #1 is built on a soft sub roll, not a baguette, and though it is nicely toasted, it still gets good and gooey with all the toppings, making it a mandatory four-napkin sandwich. It's also delicious, suggesting a world of rich possibilities opened up by riffs on bánh mì.

There are a lot of creative, tempting options now available to curious Charleston eaters. But, ultimately, which is the best?

For me, it all comes down to the bread, which is fitting, since bánh mì is nothing more than the Vietnamese word for bread. The traditional versions on the streets of Saigon are made with Vietnamese baguettes, which incorporate rice flour into the dough, resulting in an airier loaf with a very crispy crust. That bread is a hallmark of the original versions in immigrant delis in the U.S., too, but it's not so easy to pull off in a city with no professional Vietnamese bakery.

"Finding a good Vietnamese style baguette was impossible in Charleston," says Auto-Banh's Howell. At first they considered getting the real thing shipped in from New York, but they didn't have the space to freeze and store the number of rolls they needed. So, they turned to West Ashley bakery Normandy Farm, whose more traditional French baguette proved a good option. "We do have to empty out a lot of the filler," Howell says. "We dig out the top half so it's not all bread."

The sturdy baguette lets Auto-Banh really stuff the sandwiches full, melding the ingredients into compact layers of flavor. The only downside? The hard ridges on the crusty bread could prove a little rough on the roof of your mouth, especially if you're really hungry and end up wolfing down your take-out bánh mì in two minutes while driving top speed in a car (not that I would know).

The low and slow pork from the Auto-Banh truck crams a big wad of pulled pork inside the baguette - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The low and slow pork from the Auto-Banh truck crams a big wad of pulled pork inside the baguette

CO's owner Greg Bauer echoes Howell, admitting that "finding the right bread was quite the process." He ended up buying his from Liz Atkar of the Bagel Shop, who has a French baker on staff who makes the baguettes special for CO. It's a much lighter baguette than Auto-Bahn's, and it is toasted perfectly, making it pleasingly crispy on top.

Butcher & Bee takes a different tack and bakes their baguettes right on the premises, creating their own spin on traditional French and Vietnamese loaves. "We took what we liked from each kind of bread and devised a hybrid, of sorts," says Butcher & Bee chef Stuart Tracy. Made with an olive oil and wheat flour dough, the resulting loaf is warm and soft with a delicious light crumb but an outside that's intentionally not too chewy, making "a great match for the textures of the stuff on the inside," as Tracy puts it.

But what the bread's texture gives, the preparation can take away. Both CO and Butcher & Bee slice their baguettes clean down the middle, which results in a sandwich that's more piled high than it is stuffed full. You lose the tight layering that pulls everything into a consistent whole, and end up with a lot of stray stuffing on your plate.

On Bánh mì Wednesdays, Butcher & Bee serves theirs with a variety of fillings, from eggplant to fried chicken - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • On Bánh mì Wednesdays, Butcher & Bee serves theirs with a variety of fillings, from eggplant to fried chicken

At Bon Banh Mi, though, both key elements are present. The secret is in the bread, which is delivered fresh each day from a source whose identity co-owner Jeremy Spenser is keeping close to his vest. Despite my brutal interrogation, delivered between sips of Bon Banh Mi's excellent black-jasmine iced tea, he would reveal only that they're from a local person who's in the process of opening his or her own bakery. Like the baguettes at Vietnamese bakeries in L.A. and New York, these include rice flour in the dough. The baker worked with Sakran and Spenser through multiple iterations until they got just the right formula, ensuring an airy loaf with a thin crust that turns crackingly crisp when they toast it in a salamander.

"We're very happy with how the bread turned out," Spenser says. "We've increased the size of the baguette a little from the ones we used at the farmer's market, and the larger loaf lets us really dig out the inside of the bread and pack in the filling."

The result is one delicious sandwich, especially the pâté and cha lua version. It's very similar to the traditional Vietnamese style, but with one local twist. It uses country pâté, made by Jason Houser of Meathouse, which is thicker and heavier than the housemade pâté you'll find in an old-school Vietnamese deli version. The cha lua is described as "Vietnamese ham," but it might more properly be called a pork loaf. Sliced and layered atop the pâté, the smooth, creamy combination really works, especially when stuffed inside the splendidly light baguette.

It's an extremely close call, but because of the bread, Bon Banh Mi gets my vote as Charleston's top version — at least for now. I fully expect we'll see even more contenders popping up around town in the near future.

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