Friday, November 6, 2015

HCMC Foodie Trip: The One with Banh Mi

One of my regrets of not spending more time in Ho Chi Minh City was not being able to try out all the wonderful street food in town - well, I guess there's never enough time since on every block at every corner you see people cooking and eating, day or night.

But rather than lamenting on the food that I didn't have time for, I would rather look back at the delicious stuff I was able to try during my short stay, and on top of my list would probably be Banh Mi.

I came to the realization of the complexity and variety a seemingly simple and humble banh mi could be after trying a couple of the shops and stalls. A legacy from the country's colonial past, this fusion-style sandwich combining French (baguette and pate) and Vietnamese (herbs and spices, grilled and cured meat) ingredients has been adopted and embraced as the stable of true Vietnamese cuisine, loved by locals and enjoyed by people around the world.

My first stop for Banh Mi was at a shop called Banh Mi Huynh Hoa not far away from my hotel, which many have said served the best banh mi in town. While most banh-mi's were served from small, mobile food cart along the curbside of the street in this town, Banh Mi Huynh Hoa is the more established one, having its own permanent shop along a rather busy street in District 1. Unlike many which stalls which open in the morning and close before dinner, Banh Mi Huynh Hoa opens from 3pm til late, and I have been warned to prepare for long waiting lines for this being extremely popular with both locals and tourists.

I made a quick 10 minute walk to the shop on Sunday afternoon and was surprised that there weren't too many people waiting. The shop front is of similar size as those street-food stalls in Hong Kong with no room for customers to sit or stand inside - so it's purely on take-out basis. On the left was a guy manning the mini-oven to keep the baguettes warm and slightly toasted, while on the right was a huge cart with proper mise-en-place for all the ingredients needed all laid out orderly, handled by two ladies standing by the cart doing the assembly.

Only one item was served in the shop - the Banh Mi. The lady tried to ask me something in Vietnamese which I didn't understand - I assumed she's asking whether I want chilis in my sandwich so I just nodded by head. She then started to put scores of ingredients in the split baguette bread in such speed and smooth motion that I wonder whether she could have done it with her eyes closed.

I couldn't wait for a bite of the banh mi so I just opened the bag and started eating the moment I stepped out of the shop. First thing that struck me was the sheer amount of ingredients that were stuffed in this small split baguette. When you are happy that your regular lunch sub has 5 ingredients, that Banh Mi had more than a dozen - there were the pickled vegetables, a few different kinds of cured meat, the pate, meat floss, the spices and chilies, cilantros and other herbs. And they were all so fresh and each with distinct tastes and textures making every bite so interesting and enjoyable - okay except the last bite when I got the bits of the super-spicy birdeye chilies which made me dashing into the nearest convenience store for water. I particularly loved the generous smear of pate giving it a rich flavors balanced with the crunchy cucumbers and onions, and the cilantro with a pleasant aroma.

I spent the next few days trying on a few other versions elsewhere whenever I have a chance, but I couldn't get one close to the quality of the one at Banh Mi Huynh Hoa. Except maybe Banh Mi 37, a much simpler joint hidden in a blind alley near a busy roundabout near Nguyen Trai. (it could be hard to find if you don't try hard enough looking into the dark alley Hem 39 in between some shops with neon signs) The style was a little different - most banh mi's are based on cold ingredients, inside the bun at Banh Mi 37 was a few pieces of pork sausages, warmed on a charcoal grill. The sausage was well-caramelized on the outside with a sweet glaze - reminded me of those Taiwanese beef jerky. It's a much simpler version with only a few condiments other than the meat but the sausages were so excellent that it's worth an honorable mention.

Before I said goodbye to Vietnam I went back to Banh Mi Huynh Hoa on the last evening to try it one more time. This time, the place was much crowded with scooters parked outside and a long waiting line outside, extending well into the shop next door. I felt my foodie mission was complete having another bite of this. I am not sure how the Vietnamese thought of the French colonial rule in general, but seeing the happy faces of people holding their beloved Banh Mi, I am convinced they certainly left a good legacy which was given a local facelift to make this one of the tastiest street food item in the world.

Banh Mi Huynh Hoa: 26 Le Thi Rieng, Ben Thanh, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Banh Mi 37: Hem 39 near 37 Nguyen Trai, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam


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