The Bánh Mi is unequivocally the world’s greatest sandwich. Shawarma and bacon with HP sauce are runners-up, but none of them come close to matching the assault on the five senses through Vietnam’s brilliant signature takeaway. I spoke to Duc Tran, a globe-trotting restaurateur with an extraordinary life story, at his restaurant Mango Mango in Hoi An for a feature I did on Vietnamese cuisine for Destinasian:
“Vietnamese cuisine is all about five tastes, senses and textures in every single dish: Even the bánh mì, it’s humble food but one bite delivers sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. There’s fatty meat, crispy and crunchy vegetables, soft bread and creamy pâté. When you eat it with your hands, you eat with the five senses – your eyes, nose, ears, tongue and fingers. Wherever I’ve been in the world, there’s just nothing like it.”
Two examples in Hoi An proved his point. In fact they all did. Banh My Phuong was Bourdain’s favourite, as his photo posted prominently on the menu indicates. Much better for me was the self-styled ‘Madam Khanh The Banh Mi Queen’. No prizes for marketing subtlety, but every praise for her brilliant creation, slowly constructed by deft chopstick moves using still-nimble 84 year-old-fingers.
The smooth spread of metallic home made liver pate in the still-warm baguette, the generous slices of aromatic pork roll, the crunch and clean snap of fresh vegetables, the mounds of vibrant green coriander, sharp pickles, the spoons of secret fish and chilli sauces, mayo and much more made besides for a transcendent sandwich experience.
These are brilliant examples of a peerless dish, made and served by proud Vietnamese women, many of whom have spent a lifetime perfecting it. Then there’s Comh Bánh Mi in Wan Chai, somewhere I randomly wandered past looking for a takeaway lunch. If you want to try one of theirs, look under the menu column called‘ Hory clap!’
If you want ‘potato wedges with sriracha mayo’ (That Vietnamese classic, clearly) then look under the column called “Side Jobs! ‘Evelyting forty dorrah’
I’m not kidding. This is 2016 and some genius thinks it’s a) acceptable b) funny and c) smart marketing to throw out the crassest clichés and innuendos that should have remained where they belong, back in the 1960’s.
It gets worse. Drinks are naturally labeled ‘sucky sucky’, while if you want the ‘football sized monster’ sandwich then simply ask for ‘The gang banh mi! All the way”
Breathtakingly stupid and profoundly inappropriate is an impressive double-whammy in a one-page menu. They also jump on the bandwagon of the recent viral story (which was a spoof – and untrue) about a Vietnamese Australian called ‘Phuc Dat Bich’ who was trying to get a passport in that name. The business card of owner Tim Lau says ‘aka Phuc Dat Bich’.
Incidentally, their ‘Iberico pork rib satay banh mi’ ($45) was a truly feeble takeaway. I should have known from its name. The meagre cuts of pork were about as Iberian as I am, the bread was cold, while the allegedly pickled veg tasted impressively of absolutely nothing. None of the five senses stimulated, a million miles from what it should be.
I don’t know where Tim Lau is from. Maybe from Vietnam. He and the team may think it’s just a bit of a fun and that I should get a sense of humour. But that’s in the eye of the beholder as this kind of facepalm-inducing casual racism should have no home anywhere in 2016. I can imagine Donald Trump roaring with laughter on reading the menu. And that just about says it all.