It's amazing how once you've zeroed in on a specialty in a foreign country it seems to announce its presence everywhere. All the time we lived in Saigon I never once took notice of sandwich vendors grilling pork. But in August, once we'd tucked into our first banh mi thit nuong, I began seeing stalls selling the sandwiches on every other corner.
The side street leading to one of our favorite Saigon markets has two within spitting distance of each other. One is takeaway only, while another sits across the street from a few tables where you cam crouch on a toddler-sized stool, order a cafe sua da, and enjoy your banh mi in repose.
This banh mi business is a two-pronged operation, with grillmaster stationed across the street from the stall. The woman assembling sandwiches has quite a few fixings displayed behind glass. We passed on the golfball-sized meatballs lolling about in a scarlet sauce (more barbecue sauce, perhaps?) and asked for a combo of pork patties and pork strips, augmented by slices of a frittata-like cake,
chopped red chilies, and the usual daikon-radish pickle plus veggies. A sprinkle of fish sauce and a squirt of Maggi sauce and we were good to go.
This was a memorable banh mi experience - lots of charred meat flavor (I should point out that we asked for extra meat) and a good bit of egginess (not to mention a pleasant textural contrast to the chewy pork) coming from the omelet. I didn't miss the barbecue sauce. That said, I recognize that banh mi appreciation is not an exercise in objectivity. (I'm mildly intrigued by those meatballs, barbecue sauce or no.)
One of the things that made this banh mi experience so nice was the opportunity to watch the neighborhood around us awaken as we ate: kids on their way to school, women on their way home from market, old gents chit-chatting over a few glasses of coffee, a dad stopping in with his young son for a plate of thit nuong over rice (another specialty of the stall), and an elderly resident visiting with a vendor.
A few days later we had an encounter with a meatless banh mi behind Cho Cholon (Chinatown market). Since moving to Malaysia I've become somewhat enamored of skillfully crafted gluten products (aka 'fake meat') and this stall was doing a brisk business in vegetarian sandwiches. We had one made to order, selecting various 'sausages', 'pates', and 'meat' shreds to fill our baguette.
Lovely to look at but, in the end, not quite satisfying. Maybe, even, just wrong (unless, of course, you don't eat meat.) Perhaps non-meat meats are best appreciated on their own, without the distraction of bread and other texturally satisfying elements such as cucumbers and zesty daikon and carrot pickle. They're no substitute for thit nuong - or, for that matter, a thick slather of liver pate.