Saturday, May 22, 2010
Battle Bahn Mi
The Menu at Nhu Lan.
I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that despite living in Honolulu, with a bahn mi shop a half block from the lobby of my flat tower, I never really got into bahn mi or Vietnamese food in general. Now, years later, I'm stuck playing catch-up.
For a variety of reasons, bahn mi has been on my mind lately but it's something that I don't understand. What makes a bahn mi a bahn mi? While I do love our little city of Baltimore, it still lacks the ethnic culinary diversity of other cities and towns (sadly, a little town such as Portland, Oregon tends to best Baltimore when it comes to ethnic cuisines), which means that for serious forays into ethnic cuisines, one typically has to venture outside of Baltimore to other cities. A shame, really.
A Pile of Bahn Mi - ridiculous.
During my online research on bahn mi, the only place that seemed worth exploring were the myriad of Vietnamese shops at Arlington, Virginia's Eden Center - a mecca of everything Indochina. Also from my reading, it seems that the little, tiny shop inside Eden Center at stall number fourteen called Nhu Lan is regarded as "the best" bahn mi shop in the region.
On the way to Eden Center I must...
Nhu Lan is a small, modest and unassuming shop that's barely 200 square feet and it's jam-packed with refrigerators, three tables and a work area where Vietnamese and Latin women churn out what is truly bahn mi wonderment. Toasted french bread stuffed with pickled daikon, pickled carrots, cucumber, mayo, liver pate, jalapeno peppers and some sort of meat of some kind or another.
Thit Nguoi - Assorted Cold Cut Combination.
The most traditional of meats filling the bahn mi are the Vietnamese forcemeats, either a form of headcheese or some sort of terrine style meat. Happily, these sandwiches about the size of a 20oz bottle of soda are only $3.15 each, with a Buy 5, Get 1 Free special for $17 - meaning that we could go to town for cheap!
And go to town we did. With only eight choices on the menu, we ordered one of each, which ended up as seven bahn mi because they were out of the Nem Square Sour Pork Sausage.
Ga - Chicken Sandwich
Ordering the entire menu means that one must employ certain strategies in order to not feel bloated from the experience. With borrowed knife in hand, we cut off 1/4 of each sandwich as our samples, leaving a half sandwich for late night snacking or lunch for the next couple of days.
After eating the equivalent of 1.75 sandwiches, the surprising part was that I didn't feel bloated. The light and fresh aspect of the bahn mi left me feeling fresh and without the heavy burden typically associated with gorging oneself. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising since the bahn mi is heavy on the veg and lighter on the meat.
Xiu Mai - Vietnamese Meat Ball Sandwich.
How was the Nhu Lan Bahn Mi? Amazing. Light, refreshing and fresh tasting. Balanced and nuanced with the exception of the chicken which was kind of bland and uninspired - as commercial chicken normally tastes. The favorite? The Cold Cut Combination of headcheese and what looked like compressed ham.
The Ham Pate reminded me of Spam in texture without the heavy saltiness. In reality, this is sandwich perfection: the pickled daikon and carrots combined with the house mayo offered a sweet and slight tartiness that balanced well with the meat. Fresh and refreshing. I know I've said that several times, but it's remarkable how balanced and light this bahn mi turned out.
Pate Cha - Vietnamese Ham Pate Sandwich
Probably the hardest one for most people to fathom (beyond the headcheese) is the fish bahn mi. A simple canned sardines in tomato sauce reminded me of the sandwiches my father used to make when we were young for breakfast. I wanted more and made a mental note to bring the remaining half of the sandwich to my dad for a taste.
Now that I have a base understanding of bahn mi I feel comfortable experimenting at home...
Bi - Shredded steam pork & pork skin.
Thit Do - Vietnamese Red Meat Pork.
Ca - Fish Sandwich
The Aftermath, and lunch for Sunday and Monday.