September 11, 2007

More Banh Mi, Please

There are only a few individual meals or food items I have had that have managed to achieve “hallowed” status. There was, for instance, my wife’s cote du boeuf at Marcel’s—the single most tender and delicious steak I’ve ever tasted. The baguette with brie and bottle of red wine we slowly devoured in a tree-and-bench-lined park in Paris also qualifies.

There are probably less than a handful of others. I can now safely add to this list a sandwich I had this past Saturday. Said sandwich was consumed during the first annual meeting of “The Strip Club,” a gathering of three couples with the sole purpose of eating and drinking our way through Pittsburgh’s Strip District over the course of 8 to 10 hours.

I first read about these sandwiches, called banh mi, 3 years ago in the New York Times, and I have lusted after one ever since. When I initially saw the stand in the Strip District in the spring -- directly in front of one of what I believe are only two or three Vietnamese restaurants in the Pittsburgh area selling sub-like sandwiches, I immediately knew what it was.

To be blunt, there is no excuse to have waited this long to get one. In my defense, though, every time we venture to the Strip we typically have kids in tow, bags filled with cookies and cheese and seafood, and an unofficial but child-required appointment for a thick slice at The Little Oven. Thus, I always find myself uttering with utmost regret, “Next time.”

Well, last Saturday, with the kids safely in the care of grandparents and our only responsibility to eat as much as seemed feasible – and drink just somewhat less – my first destination, after the obligatory alcoholic appetizer at Roland’s, was that stand for that banh mi.

In many respects, this is the perfect sandwich. Let’s begin with the bread: a fresh baguette, cut in half and sliced down the middle just to within an inch or two of the tip, the perfect envelope for the contents about to be heaped onto it The baguette was excellent: A slightly crisp, pliant crust, and a fresh, cushiony interior that worked with the ingredients about to make it their home, albeit temporarily.

Next came the chicken: thigh meat, bathed in what I would guess was fish sauce, garlic, maybe some shallot, possibly some honey, and I’m sure other spices or herbs. One of the two kindly Asian women working at the stand took the chicken from a grill, where it had been cooked on two skewers, pulled off little pieces of chicken and tucked them into the awaiting baguette. Next came thin slices of red onion, cucumber, and carrot, all of which had been relaxing in some type of pickling agent.

The other woman’s role was simple: add some healthy pinches of fresh cilantro and fresh jalapenos, before returning it to the first woman for the grand finale, a modest drizzling of a sweet and spicy glaze.

The wonder of Vietnamese food is the fresh, often intense flavors, and the banh mi captures that perfectly. There is an ever-present sweetness that’s perfectly counterbalanced by the heat from the glaze and jalapenos, the cool taste of the cucumber, carrot, and cilantro, and the richness of the fish sauce.

And when you put all of that on a crispy baguette, your only option is to really chew each bite, literally forcing you to take your time and enjoy each bit of banh mi that enters your mouth.

Hallowed status, indeed.

Props also go to the Penn Avenue Fish Company for its bangin’ – as the kids say – fish tacos. Unlike the more traditional fish tacos that are popular on the West Coast, these were made with what I believe was salmon (instead of a fried or grilled white fish) and came in a hard, corn shell (instead of a flour tortilla). It was, as is traditionally done, topped with cabbage and very fresh diced tomatoes, with a spicy, creamy sauce to ratchet up the heat index. Excellent.

The Saphire Martini – with 4 olives, without even requesting it – at The Firehouse Lounge was top notch, as was the eponymous Kaya Burger, although with a little too much “secret Kaya sauce.” I like to eat my burgers, not bathe in them.

Overall, the first-ever gathering of The Strip Club was a rousing success. May there be many more.

Photo courtesy of MaosRedArmy.


Grant said...

I'm glad it's article like this one should not be read around lunch or dinner time because, well, that would just be cruel. Makes me want to hop in the car and drive to Pittsburgh just for the experience.

Anonymous said...

Dangit, I just read this posting and my clock reads 12:30 p.m. I'm left salivating over my keyboard and looking forlornly at the can of Progresso Garden Vegetable soup I brought for lunch. *sigh*

- Julie

Anonymous said...

In all of the years that I have been shopping in the Strip, I have never had any of the foods that you mentioned. Now I am REALLy looking forward to my next visit - not to shop but to eat.