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The Bygone Banh Mi

October 31, 2011

Can you think of a great food that has become overwhelmingly popular, but at the same time managed to hold onto the very things that made it great?

I’m struggling to think of examples. Bottled soda perhaps. But even that was just a perversion of what jerks were doing at fountains, and ultimately would give rise to our devastating modern soda culture.

Recently, I’ve been concerned with banh mi.

After years of waiting, we’ve finally gotten a place in Albany that is making them. I’ve yet to try their version of this famous Vietnamese sandwich. But I have been talking to people about the form, and I seem to be the only one who is upset with what’s going on here and all over the country.

Let me ask you another question. Why is the banh mi such a popular sandwich?

Yes, it’s delicious. But a lot of things that are delicious do not have such a devoted following and avid fan base. It’s also a bit exotic, and at the same time familiar. Sure. It comes in many variations, and allows for different approaches to things like the bread and the condiments.

But I have a different argument. I say the banh mi enjoys its current state of popularity because the thing is just so impossibly inexpensive, especially in relationship to its deliciousness.

Banh mi is like the taco, the pizza slice, or the hot dog of sandwiches. 

It’s street food. Whether it is served on the street or in a restaurant is immaterial. Charging a lot of money for this sandwich is just plain wrong. You can get some of the best banh mi available in this country for $3 a piece in Falls Church, Virginia. And even at that silly low price the sixth one is free when you buy five.

Their diminutive price doesn’t change their size. These remain large sandwiches. You may be tempted to eat two or three or twelve, but trust me, it will catch up with you in the end.

This unbeatable price to value ratio has been key to the banh mi’s popularity.

So when a casual Vietnamese place opens and starts charging over $6 for the sandwich I’m torn. I’m very excited to have this food back in close proximity to my daily life. But I also don’t want to support this kind of perversion of the food, especially if there’s no added value besides its existence in Albany.

I could maybe see paying that price if the beef were grass-fed or the pork pasture-raised. Even then, it would feel wrong, but at least it would be justifiable. You know, in Manhattan they are only $4.25.

Think about the equivalents.

What would it take to get you to buy a $5 slice of pizza, a $5 taco, or a $5 hot dog? Actually we now have the answer to that locally, given that Chicago style Kobe beef hot dogs cost $11 a pair at our new gastropub.

Speaking of which, Capital City Gastropub is just one of two restaurants that also now offer an $11 banh mi. Oddly, the version there is deconstructed, challenging the very notion of what it means to be a sandwich. I guess this is how a dish knows it has made it in America – it gets elevated to ridiculous heights and then gets picked apart.

Now is $6 too much to pay for a delicious sandwich?

No. Especially when disgusting Subway sandwiches cost $5 and are considered by most to be a value at that price. But there’s a reason banh mi are traditionally cheap. There’s not a whole lot in them. It’s flour, water, a token amount of meat, and some of the cheapest vegetables at the market. The very point of its existence is cheap and delicious sustenance.

Sometimes things evolve. Fine. Take it upmarket. Use organic carrots. Make your own bread out of locally milled flour. I’ll pay more for that. Charge me $6 for something that’s worth $3-4 and I’ll buy it begrudgingly and occasionally to scratch an itch. But I will not beat a path to your door. And if it’s not magnificent, you may never see me again.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    October 31, 2011 10:38 am

    Things are indeed weird and expensive up here. It takes us years and years to even get banh mi–and then it’s all wrong, or too expensive, or both.

  2. Cara permalink
    October 31, 2011 2:23 pm

    Totally agree! Excited to try it, but will definitely be comparing it to the $3.25 version at Pho Viet in Allston.

  3. Rochelle permalink
    October 31, 2011 3:39 pm

    I wouldn’t rush to try the one at Pho Yummy.

  4. October 31, 2011 8:23 pm

    Hi Daniel!!!
    We’re doing a cooking demo at Honest Weight this weekend – http://www.chefsconsortium.com/autumn-tasting-honest-weight-food-coop-chefs-consortium.html. Was hoping you might make a mention. Hope you’re well!
    Noah
    Thanks for including us on your page

  5. November 1, 2011 2:09 am

    Andrea Nguyen at Viet World Kitchen has quite a nice post on the history of the bahn mi at http://www.vietworldkitchen.com/blog/2009/06/banh-mi-sandwich-recipe.html . She says it started as a very simple sandwich and has relatively recently arrived at a certain complexity. The bahn mis that Americans crave are far different than what her mother knew growing up in North Vietnam and apparently much better.

    I like your assumption that the bahn mi is a very popular sandwich but I don’t know that it is correct. I have seen relatively few non-Asian folks in bahn mi places. I will agree with you on the relationship between popularity and price, and the analogy between the local $6 bahn mi (that’s before you add the meat by the way) and a hypothetical $5 slice of pizza. If it is too expensive it is not going to foster the popularity and production line preparations that are at the key to this sandwich’s success.

    Bahn mi devotees should check out the thread in the NY Times food blog last summer at http://is.gd/NMSVKm in which an amazingly clueless columnist picks the best bahn mi places and gets it wrong to the outrage of a huge number of contributors. None from the Cap District, however…

  6. November 1, 2011 2:20 am

    While my previous comment is awaiting moderation, I will add that serious eats had an outraged commentary on the NY Times piece at http://www.seriouseats.com/2011/02/rant-what-the-new-york-times-doesnt-know-abou.html and this on its own drew over 100 comments, starting with someone who said “I couldn’t finish the article, it made me too mad. As an Orange County resident, to not mention Little Saigon in Westminster is like talking about Jewish delicatessens and not mentioning NYC.”

  7. November 3, 2011 4:51 am

    Did I miss the mention of where I can find this sandwich in Albany?

  8. sam permalink
    March 28, 2012 12:17 pm

    subway isnt really disgusting….try a veggie patty on whole wheat bread and load it up with veggies, oil and vinegar….great deal

    • March 28, 2012 5:00 pm

      I prefer my sandwiches a little less processed.

      Subway 9-Grain Wheat Bread:
      Enriched wheat flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, yeast, whole wheat flour, sugar, contains 2% or less of the following: wheat gluten, oat fiber, soybean oil, wheat bran, salt, wheat, rye, yellow corn, oats, triticale, brown rice, barley, flaxseed, millet, sorghum, yeast nutrients (calcium carbonate, calcium sulfate, ammonium sulfate), vitamin D2, dough conditioners (DATEM, sodium stearoyl lactylate, potassium iodate, ascorbic acid, azodicarbonamide), caramel color, refinery syrup, honey, yeast extract, natural flavor, enzymes.

      MorningStar Farms Garden Veggie Patty (widely believed to supply Subway):
      VEGETABLES (MUSHROOMS, WATER CHESTNUTS, ONIONS, CARROTS, GREEN BELL PEPPERS, RED BELL PEPPERS, BLACK OLIVES), TEXTURED VEGETABLE PROTEIN (SOY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, WHEAT GLUTEN, WATER FOR HYDRATION), EGG WHITES, COOKED BROWN RICE (WATER, BROWN RICE), ROLLED OATS, CORN OIL, CALCIUM CASEINATE, SOY SAUCE (WATER, SOYBEANS, SALT, WHEAT), CONTAINS TWO PERCENT OR LESS OF ONION POWDER, CORNSTARCH, SALT, HYDROLYZED VEGETABLE PROTEIN (CORN, SOY AND WHEAT), AUTOLYZED YEAST EXTRACT, NATURAL FLAVORS FROM NON-MEAT SOURCES, SUGAR, SOY PROTEIN ISOLATE, SPICES, GARLIC POWDER, DEXTROSE, JALAPEÑO PEPPER POWDER, CELERY EXTRACT.

      Subway Banana Peppers:
      Banana peppers, water, distilled vinegar, salt, calcium chloride, sodium benzoate (preservative), sodium metabisulfite (preservative), yellow #5, natural flavors, polysorbate 80.

      Subway Jalapeno Peppers:
      Jalapeno peppers, water, distilled vinegar, salt, natural flavorings, calcium chloride, sodium benzoate (preservative).

      Subway Pickles:
      Cucumbers, water, distilled vinegar, salt, calcium chloride, sodium benzoate (preservative), alum, natural flavors, polysorbate 80, FD&C yellow no. 5.

      Subway Olives:
      Ripe olives, water, salt, ferrous gluconate (it’s a form of iron used to make sure the olives are really black)

      Note: Vegetables shouldn’t need to have natural flavors or artificial colors, and certainly not preservatives (especially if they are pickled)!

      You are smart to get the oil and vinegar separate. Should anyone decide to skip a step and opt for the vinaigrette instead, they are in for a heap of additional food science.

      Subway Red Wine Vinaigrette:
      Water, corn syrup, red wine vinegar, sugar, parmesan cheese (partially skimmed milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes, anti-caking agent), salt, distilled vinegar, contains less than 2% of food starch-modified, dehydrated red bell pepper, xanthan gum, spices, dehydrated onion, dehydrated garlic, sodium benzoate (a preservative), natural flavor, color red #40 and blue #1.

      So, I’ll put this back to you Sam. Do you find this sandwich to be appetizing?

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