In the two and a half years that we lived in Saigon I never once ate banh mi. Don't know why exactly. I suppose that when mealtime or snacktime rolled around all the other choices seemed so much more compelling.
Don't hate me because I'm an idiot.
I tried to make up for lost time when we were in Saigon last November. Led by Dave (a sandwich connoisseur from way, way back), I downed at least one banh mi day. In a few weeks we'll be heading back to that hot and steamy city by the river, and a more thorough survey of the Saigon sammie scene is high on my 'To Do' list. I'll start with my favorite version from last trip, served not from one of the city's ubiquitous mobile banh mi carts, but from a folding table set up in front of a general store in District 1.
We stumbled across this banh mi master after a couple rounds at Cafe Latin, perhaps the only bar in all of Asia that does a real pour. We'd already had dinner but the crowd coalescing around this man and his sandwich ingredients made the question of whether or not we really still had any appetite seem rather trivial. What especially drew our attention was the portable charcoal grill upon which he lay each butterflied baguette (soft side down) before stuffing it silly. His banh mi was so good we returned - Dave with camera in hand - the next night.
Alas, no grill to be seen. We later learned that the vendor, who's been sating local late-night sandwich cravings at this spot for at least the last ten years, fires up the barbie only when he's got day-old bread, left over from the night before. If he's not smokin', as it were, you know his bread is fresh.
I'll wager that this will be the only post in which I'll advise you, if you find yourself in Saigon on an evening and craving banh mi, to cross your fingers for day-old bread. A warm, slightly smoky, crackly-charred baguette-ed banh mi is something extra special. But his fresh-bread version is pretty divine in its own right. We ordered the works - which included various charcuterie and a lusty liver pate that he spread quite thickly on one half of the loaf, carrot and daikon pickle, tomato, plenty of crunchy cilantro, a generous shake of that fragrant Vietnamese black pepper, and, I think, Maggi sauce - and bundled it back to our hotel where we could enjoy it with a beer (and Dave could photograph it in good light).
Just writing this post leads me to sorely regret, all over again, those 30 banh mi-less months.
Around the corner from banh mi heaven, dressing to match your Vespa
Banh mi vendor, Mac Thi Buoi Street near corner of Hai Ba Trung, District 1, Saigon. From 10pm till ?