Longed-for bahn mi found in LA
Generally, I try to make my lunches unpredictable and varied - in part because I feel that eating the same thing at the same time every day is something that an old dog does. I base this assumption loosely on the hunch that people are meant to take in as many tastes, textures and nutrients as they can.
But when it comes to the Vietnamaese bahn mi sandwich, I'm a plodding old hound ambling up to her dish. There have been stretches of time - the winter of 2008, for instance - when I ate bahn mi sandwiches for lunch at least four days out of seven.
I allowed this in the hope that indulging the obsession might cause it to eventually run out of rope, that I would someday just get sick of the deliriously good combination that makes up a bahn mi sandwich: the charred sweet sheaves of meat, tangy strings of pickled carrot and daikon radish, cilantro and cucumber all bound together beneath a cool blanket of mayonnaise . . . a swipe of liverwurst to add background, a bullet of fiery red chili sauce for heat and the sum of this ensconced in a softer, kinder and gentler-to-the-mouth version of the classic French baguette.
Of course the boredom never came. How could it? There's just too much going on here. For someone who tries to insert vegetables into every meal, dreams of grilled meat and is always on the lookout for a cheap lunch, nothing covers all bases like a bahn mi sandwich.
I was in Los Angeles this week and found an excellent bahn mi at a food truck parked outside a museum. Like New York, LA is a city gripped by an obsession with both bahn mi sandwiches and portable food trucks. Large trucks such as the kind that serve treats at fairs are staffed by excellent chefs and are equipped to cook and serve food anywhere they can park and unfold a counter. They're on the move, parking themselves at a different meter every day, and the coolest ones twitter their location to a devoted band of loyal foodies and fans. Many of the trucks in LA are devoted to tacos, but some serve fancy hotdogs, others southern barbecue, and more than a handful serve bahn mi sandwiches.
When I spotted one last week the pang of missing my favorite Brooklyn bahn mi shop quickened my pace across the street. Would it measure up to Hanco? Would they be as good as the bahn mis in the St. Paul Asian markets? Would they have bubble tea, too?
Oh yes, yes and yes. I ordered a grilled pork bahn mi and watched them layer it on: a smear of mayo, a curlique of sriracha, a thatch of carrot pickle, a crown of cilantro.
What is this madness and why is it so addictive? So innovative, this is a sandwich with vivid energy, a food phenomenon that only seems to happen with two cultures run smack into each other. No doubt the bahn mi probably wouldn't have come to be if the French hadn't colonized Vietnam. They introduced liver pate and baguettes into the cultural lexicon, and lucky for everyone, the Vietnamese took those things under their arm and ran with them.
Grilled Beef Bahn Mi
You may substitute thinly sliced chicken breast or pork boston butt for the beef if you like.
Makes one large sandwich
1 1/2 pounds beef, such as boneless short rib or chuck eye steak, cut against the grain into thin slices
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, grated
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
20 turns freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon dark sesame oil (can substitute vegetable oil)
1 loaf of french bread (a softer one is better than a crusty one)
1/2 bunch cilantro, washed and dried
1 hothouse cucumber, cut into thick batons
1/2 recipe carrot and daikon radish pickle (see below)
riracha chili sauce, or any good hot sauce
Marinate the beef at least one hour before cooking and as long as overnight. Combine the beef, grated ginger, grated garlic, salt, sugar, pepper, soy and sesame oil; set aside.
Make the carrot and daikon radish pickle (see below) and marinate.
Preheat the oven to 375. Bake the French bread until just crusty on the edges.
Heat a grill or a grill pan over medium-high heat. Blot excess marinade from the meat and grill quickly on each side until charred at the edges and cooked through.
Split the baguette lengthwise. Spread with mayonnaise and paint with as much sriracha as desired. Spread the other side with a thin layer of liverwurst. Lay the meat on the bottom and top with cucumber, carrot and daikon pickle and cilantro. Replace the top and cut into sections to serve.
Carrot and Daikon Pickle
Into the Vietnamese Kitchen
Makes about 3 cups
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into thick matchsticks
1 pound daikon radish, no larger than 2 inches in diameter, peeled and cut into thick matchsticks
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons plus 1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups distilled white vinegar
1 cup lukewarm water
Place the carrot and daikon in a bowl and sprinkle with the salt and 2 teaspoons of the sugar. Use your hands to knead the vegetables for about 3 minutes, expelling the water from them. They will soften and liquid will pool at the bottom of the bowl. Stop kneading when you can bend a piece of daikon so that the ends touch but the daikon does not break. The vegetables should have lost about one-fourth of their volume. Drain in a colander and rinse under cold running water, then press gently to expel extra water. Return the vegetables to the bowl if you plan to eat them soon, or transfer them to a 1-quart jar for longer storage.
To make the brine, in a bowl, combine the 1/2 cup sugar, the vinegar, and the water and stir to dissolve the sugar. Pour over the vegetables. The brine should cover the vegetables. Let the vegetables marinate in the brine for at least 1 hour before eating. They will keep in the refrigerator for a week.