New Orleans, LA – Culinary fusion is hardly a trendy idea for Vietnamese cooks. After all, their traditional food sometimes shows the stamp that a century of French colonial history left on their country. For a handheld lesson on the subject, simply order a banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwich made on crusty French bread and smeared with pate.
The banh mi is a staple in Vietnam, and in Louisiana it is sometimes called the "Vietnamese po-boy." Once found only in Vietnamese bakeries and noodle shops around the edges of New Orleans, they are now becoming increasingly common across the metro area.
More mainstream, pan-Asian restaurants have added banh mi, and the high-end Warehouse District deli called Cochon Butcher now features one on its menu. Last year, the New Orleans East sandwich shop Banh Mi Sao Mai even entered one of its namesake creations in competition at the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival. Going head to head with some of the city's most popular po-boys, this rather exotic entry took home a coveted award.
The bread for banh mi is essential, and it is quite different from the local po-boy loaves holding roast beef and fried oysters. The traditional recipe mixes Asian rice flour with wheat flour for a singular, tropical-weight loaf. It's softer and moister than po-boy loaves, while the thin-skinned exterior remains crackly-crisp.
Into this cradle, the banh mi maker crams a wide assortment of fillings, though the traditional mix includes pate, fatty Vietnamese ham and roasted pork, plus the French gift of mayonnaise and a clutch of shredded carrot and radish, a spear of wet cucumber, sprigs of cool cilantro and fiercely hot, raw jalapeno.
It's crunchy, textured, fresh, complex yet not heavy. While they are not large, one of these sandwiches makes a sensible, light lunch on a hot summer day.
Before Katrina, the noodle shop Pho Tau Bay had four locations in the metro area, making it the most accessible purveyor of banh mi in town. Only the original Pho Tau Bay in Gretna survived the storm, but it still carries the banh mi torch with a dozen varieties, including a rare vegetarian version made with fried tofu.
There are a few competing local bakeries that produce banh mi loaves, but the most prominent is Dong Phuong, a fixture in the New Orleans East Vietnamese enclave near NASA's Michoud rocket plant. These loaves are fluffy and airy but compress to dense and chewy under the pressure of your bite. Customers order the sandwiches off the menu in Dong Phuong's restaurant, or get bag loads of them to go from the attached bakeshop.
From the traditional standard of sliced pork and crunchy vegetables, banh mi makers have found a universe of new sandwich fillings, from roasted quail to grilled shrimp. Who knows, if sandwich evolution continues long enough in New Orleans, some day we might even see banh mi made with fried oysters or roast beef and gravy.
Here are some New Orleans-area purveyors of banh mi, the Vietnamese po-boy:
Banh Mi Sao Mai
14321 Chef Menteur Hwy., 254-3977
91 Holmes Blvd., Terrytown, 361-4620
933 Behrman Hwy., Gretna, 394-2368
14207 Chef Menteur Hwy., 254-0214
3400 Cleary Ave., Metairie, 888-9600
Hong Kong Market
925 Behrman Hwy., Gretna, 394-7075