The woman making my sandwich is dark-haired, petite, and pretty, her hands deft, with a smile that comes easily while she works. She slices a roll, spreads it with sauce, lards it with cold cuts and vegetables -- a sprig of this, a sprinkling of that. The sandwich is universal; with a few adjustments, you'll find it in New Orleans, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Paris, Havana, and Shanghai. Call it a hoagie, a sub, a po-boy, a Cuban, or a báhn mi, but what you've got is your basic carry-out sandwich, a self-contained meal wrapped in wax paper -- fragrant, spicy, mouthwatering, and cheap.
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.
What follows is a short list to get you started on the chase. You'll want to branch out on your own, exploring your neighborhood. Keep your eyes peeled for the words Oriental Market; if the place is operated by Vietnamese, chances are good you'll hit pay dirt.
Oriental Grocery & Seafood Market (3355 Lake Worth Rd., Lake Worth, 561-434-2175), open seven days, subs made daily, takeout only. Three different subs: roast pork, barbequed pork (both $3), and the combo ($2). Served on a toasted, warm baguette spread with a mayo-fish sauce mixture, the combo layers thinly sliced, crimson-rimmed xa xiu marinated pork, Vietnamese bologna -- a pressed, pale cooked pork roll -- and a jellied "pâté" of pork meat and skin, sweet and a bit gristly. Ask for your sandwich spicy to get jalapeños along with pickled carrots, radishes, cucumber, and cilantro.
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Vinh Hung Oriental Market (Cocoplum Plaza, 2845 N. Military Trl., West Palm Beach , 561-687-3114), open daily 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., subs on Saturday and Sunday, takeout only. Quyen Ong and her extended family make one sandwich, a combo ($3), and it sells out fast; go early. The busy front counter, piled with prepared foods, spring rolls, green rice, dozens of pastries, and flats of fresh duck eggs, is a major distraction; but make your way to the back, where whole roasted pigs and cooked ducks are set out for slicing. The combo, on a warmed roll dressed with fish sauce, is layered with roast pork and pressed pork roll; extra fat sticks of carrot and radish and a long sliver of cucumber and stalks of cilantro give this sandwich major heft and crunch and a sweet-sour underbite.
Quoc Huong Oriental Market (1609 N. State Rd. 7, Margate, 954-957-7753), open daily 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., takeout only. Quoc Huong made the most unusual and high-cal version ($3 combination), out-of-this-world yummy. The bread here was our favorite, Italian dusted with semolina, toasted to a blissful crunchiness on the outside and airy, almost melting inside, spread with a canned French butter and pâté. Layers of ham and pressed pork are topped with shredded carrots, radish, generous cilantro and hot peppers, and a dash of soy sauce, and the whole thing is pressed on the grill to heat. Oh, yes.
Saigon Deli (1392 State Rd. 7, Margate, 954-975-2426), open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. closed Wednesday, is just across the road from Quoc Huong. This delightful café, run by Young Le and his mother, is decorated with a fish tank, pop art, and painted tables and offers a selection of phó soups plus the báhn mi, appetizers, salads, and noodles. The subs are $3; the meats are all prepared on the premises. Choose from homemade ham, pâté, chicken, Vietnamese combo, meatballs, shredded pork, barbequed pork, xa xiu pork, or a combo. We tried the barbequed pork, deep red, sweet and pungent, and the combo. Both came on a warm, crunchy, sweetish roll (Young Le confessed these come from Publix), with no sauce. The meats were delicate and subtle in flavor, less salty than usual, and the whole effect of both sandwiches, topped with carrot, radish, a fat sprig of cilantro, and cucumber, was light, healthy, and lovely. Washed down with sweet Thai tea with tapioca "bubbles," it's a beautiful thing.
Chó á Dông (4245 N. State Rd. 7, Lauderdale Lakes, 954-485-9450), open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. This amazing grocery is in one of the busiest Asian meccas in Lauderdale, a strip mall housing Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, a Chinese barbecue, a noodle factory, and an acupuncturist. The store is one big sensual pleasure, from the counters piled with leaf-wrapped pork treats, summer rolls, and pastries to long aisles filled with hundreds of teas and condiments. You'll find their pre-prepared báhn mi at the front counter just on Saturdays and Sundays. We sampled the meatball version, the only sandwich we had cold. Chewy French bread is spread with mayonnaise and pâté. The meatball was rich and gummy, layered with pressed pork roll and roast pork, shredded vegetables, pickles, and a big handful of pepper: hot, hot, hot!