Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Wonders Of Bahn Mi

Husband and I met when we were both graduate students living in St. Louis. For those not in the know, St. Louis has incredibly cheap housing, which made it a good place to be a student on a limited budget. I bought a house my second year in the city and never looked back.

My house was in a part of town with a lot of Vietnamese immigrants, including a sizable Hmong population, and I could easily walk to three excellent Vietnamese restaurants and a slightly longer walk would get me to two more plus a decent Thai place. It was heavenly. The closest place to me was a real hole-in-the-wall when I first moved there -- Banh Mi So #1. I glanced at the posted menu once while taking a walk, didn't see much that was exciting, and stuck with the place that offered what Husband and I called our "three and a half dollar dinner" for the next several years.

The three and a half dollar dinner was a bowl of vermicelli noodles with tofu and a wide and ever-changing collection of green herbs and vegetables, all very lightly cooked with a light broth. Not enough broth to make it a soup, but enough to make it absolutely delicious.

But over the years, Banh Mi So #1 spruced up a little. It added an outdoor seating area on the wide sidewalk. Plants joined the cafe tables and umbrellas. A friend convinced me that it was time to give this place a try. I was almost instantly addicted. To banh mi chay -- tofu banh mi sandwiches. Their spring rolls -- advertised as the best in the city -- lived up to their excellent reputation, but the banh mi is what kept me coming back.

That, and the proprieter-husband reminded me strongly of my grandfather. I know that an elderly Vietnamese man and an elderly Russian Jew probably shouldn't look alike, but they really do. He treated me like a grandfather, too, suggesting tofu dishes I hadn't tried and joining his wife in haranguing me to try their Vietnamese desserts, heavy on mung beans.

The best suggestion he offered was his very first one: ordering my banh mi chay with double tofu, an option offered for all their sandwiches. And this brings me to the inspiration for this post. Today's NYTimes has a very nice article on the innovative bhan mi chefs of New York City. I almost drooled while reading it, but kept getting stuck whenever they talked about the overstuffed, big sandwiches available. One descriptor that would not fit Banh Mi So #1's creations is overstuffed. When I opened up my first sandwich to see what was inside, I had to search for the tofu -- and I had double tofu! There was, on a roughly 10 inch roll, perhaps an ounce and a half or maybe two ounces of tofu, along with a thin scattering of pickled daikon and carrot, three or four rings of jalapeno, a smear of mayo, a splash of fish sauce dressing, and a few sprigs of cilantro.

It was enough.

The flavors and quantities were perfect with the airy French bread roll. I was a convert. When we were later getting ready to move to Isolationville and I had packed up pretty much all of my kitchen, I frequently called to order a banh mi chay, double tofu, and would walk around the corner to pick it up a few minutes later, wrapped in deli paper secured with a bright yellow rubber band.

When I returned to St. Louis for my only visit since leaving three years ago, I ate there twice, and was welcomed home by my Vietnamese grandfather.

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