FRED HUA’S banh mi pho does not look like a cultural revolution. But in its juicy, messy way, it is. Served at Nha Toi in Brooklyn, where he is the chef and owner, banh mi pho is stuffed with the ingredients for pho, the sacred soup of Vietnam: beef scented with star anise and cinnamon, fresh basil and crunchy bean sprouts.
Evan Sung for The New York Times
‘THE GREENPOINT’ Vinh Nguyen with his Polish kielbasa banh mi at Silent H in Brooklyn.
Banh Mi, Unstacked
A fresh baguette with crisp, crackly crust — never tough or dry.
Steamed pork roll (cha lua), seasoned with fish sauce.
Optional: bird chilies or, more often in New York, jalapeños.
Minced barbecued pork (nem nuong) with a sweet glaze.
Pickled carrots and daikon radish (do chua).
Cucumber: thin slices or thick spears.
Ham made with a bit of pig’s ear, for crunch.
Fresh cilantr small, tender sprigs are best.
Pork liver pâté — peppery and spreadable.
Graphic Banh Mi, Unstacked
Patrick Andrade for The New York Times
FOR A NEW AUDIENCE Among the sandwiches Thao Nguyen makes with her husband, Michael Huynh, at Baoguette is a spicy Sloppy Bao.
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“I could never get away with this in San Jose,” said Mr. Hua, referring to the city with a large Vietnamese-American community in Northern California, where he grew up. “New York has a history of being open to creative ideas.”
At 31, Mr. Hua is part of a rising generation of American cooks of Vietnamese descent who are tinkering with a once-rigid culinary tradition.
They start by reinventing the banh mi — the classic street-vendor Vietnamese-French sandwich. They are taking it back to its roots with house-cured meats that blend French, Vietnamese and Chinese influences, but also nudging it forward with cross-cultural fillings (Polish sausage), local breads (crisp rolls from Parisi Bakery in Little Italy), and American influences like the sloppy Joe.
“My mother worked so hard to recreate the flavors of Vietnam in America,” said Vinh Nguyen, the 29-year-old owner of Silent H, a few blocks away from Nha Toi. “We are doing it our way, but with respect.”
If you haven’t tried a classic banh mi, imagine all the cool, salty, crunchy, moist and hot contrasts of a really great bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. Then add a funky undertone of pork liver and fermented anchovy, a gust of fresh coriander and screaming top notes of spice, sweetness and tang.
Introduced to Vietnam by the French in the early 20th century, the first banh mi (pronounced BUN-mee) were just bread, butter and ham or pâté — the traditional, minimal Parisian sandwich. “Then, the Saigonese made things interesting,” said Andrea Nguyen, a writer and food historian, referring to the riot of garnishes that lifts the sandwich from good to genius. The banh mi popular in America are in the style of Saigon — now Ho Chi Minh City, though most Vietnamese-American families, driven from the country in the 1960s and ’70s, during the war, stick to the old name. Stacked with variations on cured and cooked pork, green herbs, sweet pickled vegetables, sliced chili peppers and at least a swipe of mayonnaise, banh mi are enfolded in a crisp, slim baguette. They are so rich in history, complex in flavor and full of contradictions that they make other sandwiches look dumb.
“In Vietnam, eating banh mi is all about the meats, which the vendors make themselves — and the bread,” said Cathy Danh, who grew up in San Diego and writes about living and eating in Vietnam on her blog, “When banh mi came to America, they became supersized, with lots of fillings.”
Young Vietnamese-Americans have long experience adapting the banh mi to local conditions. “When I was in college in New Orleans, the Vietnamese kids would buy a po’ boy baguette, pull out the inside, put on liverwurst and Creole sausage and Miracle Whip,” said Julie Luong, a Houston native. “We all had pickles that our mothers sent us, and that was our banh mi.”
In New York, chefs are obsessing about precisely how to slice the cucumber, whether the carrot-daikon pickle should be crinkle-cut or julienned, and how to make the sandwich ever better, richer, spicier and bigger. “I think we’re the only ones using both butter and mayonnaise,” said Ratha Chau, the chef and a co-owner of Num Pang, a new sandwich shop in Greenwich Village. “And of course it’s a chili mayonnaise and garlic butter, and we toast the bread with the garlic butter first so that the outside is crisp and the inside moist.” At An Choi, which just opened on the Lower East Side, Tuan Bui, the 34-year-old co-owner, adds caramelized onions to the traditional filling of shredded roast chicken. He may be the first on the East Coast to serve the upscale delicacy banh mi thit heo quay — stuffed with banquet-style roast pork belly and slivers of crunchy pork skin.
New York has a relatively small Vietnamese population compared with hubs like Houston, Washington and the San Gabriel Valley in California, and it took a long time for even basic banh mi to arrive in the city in earnest. Now they can be found in all of New York’s Chinatowns, in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. One of the best places in Manhattan, Banh Mi Saigon Bakery, is tucked into the back of a jewelry shop and another, Sau Voi Corp., does much of its business in cigarettes, lottery tickets and music CDs. In Sunset Park in Brooklyn, where more Vietnamese families live, bright shops like Thanh Da and Ba Xuyen are dedicated to banh mi and have the freshest bread.