From something exotic, to a comfort food craving to the vehicle for new flavors, banh mi has come a long way in New Orleans. It no longer feels necessary to identify it as a “Vietnamese po-boy,” for instance, and both the number and variety of places to find one have multiplied.
There’s late-night banh mi at Lost Love Lounge (2529 Dauphine St.), the Marigny bar with a Vietnamese kitchen serving until midnight, and there’s high-concept modern banh mi, as practiced at MoPho (514 City Park Ave.), where one with oysters and blue cheese is in rotation.
Increasingly, there’s also convenience store banh mi, as more of the Vietnamese families who run so many of the corner stores around town recognize the potential of serving their own food next to the gumbo and yaka mein (Eat Well Food Store at 2700 Canal St. in Mid-City has been a prime example for years now, as has Singleton’s at 7446 Garfield St. in the Black Pearl; a new addition is John & Mary Food Store at 3828 Orleans Ave., by Bayou St. John).
Still, it was eye-opening, and mouthwatering, to discover the crab boil hot sausage banh mi at Mr. Bubbles Sandwich House (927 Behrman Hwy., Terrytown, 504-570-6377).
This is a walk-up sandwich stand in the lobby of the Asian food super store Hong Kong Market, and it’s run by Chanh Nguyen and his family. He’s a native of Vietnam who has fully embraced Louisiana’s outdoor culinary culture (crawfish boils, pig roasts, etc.), and it was his idea to add hot sausage to the banh mi arsenal. He picked a spicy beef/chicken link that’s baked with still more spices in the Mr. Bubbles kitchen.
His daughter Thao Nguyen came up with the sauce. They call it Sriracha mayo, but that’s only part of the story, because there’s Louisiana-style crab boil in there for good measure. The result is a multilateral heat between the fresh crunch of vegetables and the toasty crunch of French bread, which they get from the venerable Dong Phuong bakery.
“Vietnamese people know all about the traditional banh mi, but we wanted to have one to help other people get their feet wet with something more familiar,” said Brian Smith, Thao’s boyfriend and the restaurant’s appointed spokesman when I came calling.
If they were shooting for familiar, they ended up with something distinctive — a quick lunch and handy snack that (at $4.50) is also the right kind of cheap thrill.
Banh mi has been cross cultural from the start, showing the stamp of French colonial history in Vietnam with its crusty roll and the customary smear of pâté. Here in Louisiana, another former outpost of French empire, it seems that legacy rolls on.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.