Fusion is hardly a trendy idea for Vietnamese cooks, whose traditional foods often show the stamp left by a century of French colonial occupation on their country. For a handheld lesson on the subject, consider the banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich made on crusty French bread and smeared with paté.
A staple in Vietnam, local banh mi (pronounced, roughly, 'bon me") are sometimes called 'Vietnamese po-boys," and they are becoming more common than ever across the New Orleans area. One vendor, Banh Mi Sao Mi (14321 Chef Menteur Hwy., 254-3977), even had a booth at last year's inaugural Po-Boy Preservation Festival.
The bread is quite different from local loaves holding roast beef and fried oysters, however, and the unique characteristics of the bread are the true essence of banh mi. The traditional recipe mixes Asian rice flour with European wheat flour, which gives the bread an incomparably light body, softer and moister than po-boy loaves, while the thin-skinned exterior is crackly-crisp.
Into this cradle go a wide assortment of fillings, though the traditional mix includes paté, boiled ham and roasted pork, plus the French gift of mayonnaise, a clutch of shredded carrot and daikon radish, a spear of wet cucumber, sprigs of cool cilantro and fiercely hot, raw jalapeno.
While it is hard to find a decent po-boy around town that costs less than the minimum hourly wage, banh mi remain remarkable bargains. Local prices range from as low as $2.75 to $6, with most falling between $3 and $4. One sandwich makes a sensible, light lunch on a hot summer day, and two are more than adequate for a larger appetite.
Purveyors range from pho shops to bakeries where the bread goes from oven to sandwich board in no time flat. The tiny storefront operation Chau Sandwiches (933 Behrman Hwy., Gretna, 394-2368) offers seven banh mi options, most under $3, and a much longer list of smoothies and frozen tea drinks. Banh Mi Sao Mai has expanded with a new West Bank location (91 Holmes Blvd., Terrytown, 361-4620), which, like the original, serves only sandwiches and a roster of drinks. The bubble tea shop Frosty's Caffe (3400 Cleary Ave., Metairie, 888-9600) lists a few bargain banh mi options on its short menu of soups and salads.
The local temple of banh mi is Dong Phuong (14207 Chef Menteur Hwy., 254-0214), a fixture in the eastern New Orleans Vietnamese enclave near NASA's Michoud rocket assembly plant. Dong Phuong has superlative bread " fluffy and airy but compressing to dense and chewy under the pressure of your bite " and offers a great variety of fillings either at tables in the full-service restaurant or over the counter in the connected bakery. There is roasted pork, rotisserie chicken and small, satisfyingly greasy pork meatballs, plus fish or shrimp cakes, to name just a few.
Once the leading ambassador of Vietnamese po-boy popularity with its four pre-Katrina locations, Pho Tau Bay (1134 Westbank Expwy., Gretna, 368-9846) still carries the banh mi torch at its original and sole remaining restaurant. There are a dozen varieties, including a vegetarian version made with squares of fried tofu. The go-to version is the banh mi paté thit, made with what the menu describes as house-made chicken-liver sausage but which is as smooth and rich as paté. Liver flavor does not overwhelm and is softened by the generous amount of ham folded into the bread.
The grilled shrimp banh mi here sounds interesting, but the fresh, clean-tasting shrimp lack the necessary saltiness that the pork and paté versions offer in contrast to the crunchy fresh vegetables. Dryness is another pitfall for some Pho Tau Bay sandwiches, especially the versions made without the moistening paté or barbecue meatballs. I always ask for extra housemade mayonnaise.
Hong Kong Market (925 Behrman Hwy., Gretna, 394-7075), a onetime Wal-Mart converted to an Asian food superstore, has a small variety of banh mi but gets extra points for baking its own bread in ovens visible right behind the sandwich counter. This bread is less crusty than the Dong Phuong version, but has the same texture inside. Get the works here and the bread is crammed with crumbly beef meatballs, crunchy tripe, roasted pork and slices of ham studded with peppercorns and streaked with fat like a porcine stained-glass window, plus the unusual addition of red peppers and red onion.
Tan Dinh (1705 Lafayette St., Gretna, 361-8008) serves two very different types of banh mi. The more familiar includes the housemade paté or the marinated, rotisserie chicken or quail that are kitchen specialties here. The other version, however, requires utensils. Order the pork meatball sandwich, for instance, and out comes a bowl of large meatballs in red tomato sauce that tastes like marinara spiked with a touch of sweet-and-sour fish sauce. There is bread on the side to either dip or to assemble a meatball sandwich yourself.
Hipstix (870 Tchoupitoulas St., 581-2858), the only downtown purveyor of banh mi, is the most sleek and expensive of the lot. But even doubling the normal banh mi price to $6 still seems like a fair deal in the trappings of this pan-Asian Warehouse District restaurant. Served on a stylish square plate, the combination po-boy lacks hot peppers but otherwise delivers a convincingly authentic introduction to banh mi.