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.

PG Heaven

PG Belicoso Maduros, 20th Anniversary and 15th Anniversary cigars - Ahhh!

Today's afternoon quest is for PG Cigars and bahn mi. If only I could fill my humidor with the PG Belicoso Maduro, I would be a happy, kept man.

Problem is: I smoke them as fast I source them...

Going Metal

Vac Pot filtered coffee going to head-to-head.

In Japan, sophisticated syphon bars utilize a type of metal filter in their vac pots that screw together allowing you to use either cloth or paper filters with quick change ability. In America, intrepid baristas have found a way to use a La Marzocco dispersion screen in lieu of the cloth or paper filters. An intriguing idea but an unusual challenge to find a U.S. based source of these seemingly elusive metal screw filters.

Finally got a (small) stack of these filters with the thought of them replacing our cloth filters for vac pot service. Matched with new metal dispersion screens, these contraptions promise the hope of simplicity and ease of cleaning - which should make bar life slightly easier.

Metal filter on the left, cloth on the right.

The experiment is simple enough: take one metal filter and one cloth based filter and brew head-to-head comparison coffees and see which one is best. For the test, we used the Honduras San Vicente Micro Lot from Origins Organic Coffee of Vancouver. Same ratio, same technique, same coffee - different filter. I was surprised by the results.

In a perfect world, the metal filter would produce the exact same results as the cloth filters without the mess or fuss of cleaning between usages. In this world however, the results were surprisingly different.

Looking back in retrospect, it probably should be a surprise since the La Marzocco dispersion screen is not as fine as the cloth filter and one should then expect sediment. Whatever the case, the resulting sediment was unexpected in my mind resulting in a coffee with more body that reminded me of press pot coffee and a distinct departure from the clarity typically found in a vac pot brewed coffee.

My initial reaction is that I didn't like the resulting coffee. I prefer the clarity of vac pot when brewing vac pot. If I wanted the body and murkiness of pressed coffee, I might as well use a french press. That said, some of the Spro baristas liked the alternative results of the metal filter and we're giving it a run this weekend to see how it performs in a service environment and check feedback from customers.

So if you want to see the latest in vac pot brewing by intrepid baristas, have a visit this weekend.