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A friend had been pestering me to stop by the Oriental Grocery & Seafood Market to try its Vietnamese subs. I'd probably passed this reticent little neighborhood market a hundred times without noticing it. Set back from Lake Worth Road in a peeling, battered strip mall, its façade wasn't improved by last year's hurricanes. A tarp covers the ceiling where holes still wait to be patched, tinting the store's interior a gloomy, aquarial blue.
So it takes a minute for the eyes to adjust. Coolers running the length of one wall are stuffed with vegetables: cabbages like bok choy and won bok, snow peas and daikon radishes, pungent Japanese mustards, yard-long beans. There are eggplants and bean sprouts, turnips and chili peppers. Cilantro, lemongrass, winter melons, and mushrooms. Barely identifiable foodstuffs are stacked in frozen packages; live blue crabs bicker inside their crates. And beyond, the endless aisles of tea, of porcelain cups, of decorative boxes filled with tiny, potent bottles of ginseng.
Even after years of shopping in Asian markets, I still feel a little off-balance, a little shy and culture-shocked, when I come across this plenitude of exotica, with its strange sweet-sour smells, crinkling cellophanes, and printed hieroglyphs. The sandwich I've come here for may be just a few blocks down the street from the nearest Miami Subs franchise, but in taste and temperament, it's a million miles away.
Tung Le and his wife, Kimahn Tran, have run this store since 2001. They bought it when Kimahn was laid off from her job as a technician doing research and development in fiber optics at Northern Telecom. Two years later, in 2002, Tung was laid off too, after 13 years working for Telecom. The past few years have been a struggle. Tung and Kimahn work seven days a week. But Tung says they make enough from the market to pay them both a small salary, drawing a clientele that is 85 percent Vietnamese.
As hard as it must be for this good-looking young couple, with a dozen years of advanced education between them, to settle down into the grocery business, they sure do make a mean sandwich. The hunger for Vietnamese subs, or báhn mi ("wheat bread sandwich"), has lately become a full-fledged craze in some U.S. cities -- particularly San Francisco and New York, where aficionados trek miles and scour the outer boroughs for the elusive báhn mi of their dreams. Sold on the streets of Vietnam and incorporating French influences like the baguette and mayonnaise married to Vietnamese cilantro, roast pork, and pickled vegetables, báhn mi in the U.S. are usually scored behind the deli case or found stacked on counters at mom-and-pop grocery stores or occasionally at Vietnamese cafés. And one savvy family in Southern California has already founded a franchise, Lee's Sandwiches, with plans to capture the national market.
The basic recipe is simple and infinitely various. From grocery to grocery, this sandwich asserts its distinct, slightly willful personality. A French baguette, a sweet roll, or an Italian loaf is sliced, spread with some combination of mayo/fish sauce/soy sauce/chili sauce/salad dressing/butter, or sometimes left entirely naked. For the filling: house-cured ham, pâté (the definition of pâté is also broad), roast chicken, roast pork, marinated pork, barbecued pork, Vietnamese bologna, meatballs, a combination of the above, or, occasionally, catfish or sardines. Then your vegetables, shredded or coarsely slivered: pickled carrots and radishes, green pepper, cucumber, long sprigs of cilantro, sliced jalapeño peppers, and onions. For an additional kick, a generous sprinkling of black pepper and a few more dashes of chili sauce.
The sandwich maker either toasts or doesn't toast. The whole caboodle might be zapped in a microwave, popped into a toaster oven, tossed briefly on a griddle, or pressed inside a sandwich iron. Or it might come cold, premade, and wrapped for peckish weekend customers to grab along with their groceries. Some markets make them daily, some just on Saturday and Sunday. Some prepare their own meats; some buy them wholesale. But in a weekend of research -- which we spent devouring at least eight subs from northern West Palm to central Lauderdale, until we were almost panicky at the prospect of having to down one more -- we never found a báhn mi we didn't like. The combination of savory and salty meats with the sweet-tart vegetables, the crunchy roll against the soft and fatty meats, the sudden fire of a jalapeño, and the dense velvet of the pâté make for a combination just this side of paradise.