Sai Gon Sandwich – Albuquerque, New Mexico
If ever there was a culinary Kobayashi Maru (for the non-Trekkies among you, that’s a no-win scenario), it might well be naming the best sandwich (or best food of any kind) in the world. Imagine the challenge. There are potentially hundreds of thousands of delicious candidates, many worthy of acclaim as the very best in their block, city, state or province…but the world’s an awfully big place. A lifetime might not be enough to sample but a few thousand sandwiches. Any sandwich you select would undoubtedly be disputed vehemently.
Surely, you say, no authoritative source exists which would possibly have the temerity, much less breadth of knowledge, to name just one sandwich as the very best in the planet. Such hubris would invite derision and debate. Perhaps then it’s appropriate that the most recent source to declare one sandwich as definitively the best in the world comes from the island nation in which was born the man (the Earl of Sandwich) for whom the ubiquitous sandwich is named. That source is The Guardian, one of the most respected periodicals in the United Kingdom (even though it doesn’t feature “Page 3” girls).
According to The Guardian, the “world’s best sandwich isn’t found in Rome, Copenhagen or even New York City, but on the streets of Vietnam.” The Guardian’s choice as best sandwich in the world is the banh mi, otherwise known as the Vietnamese sandwich. It’s almost ironic that perhaps no sandwich anywhere has such a humble origin and that unlike skyscraper-high Dagwood sandwiches, the banh mi tends to be modest in girth and sparse in its ingredients. Where the banh mi isn’t sparse is in its utter deliciousness.
Quite simply, a banh mi packs a lot of flavor into a relatively small (by American standards) package. Unlike its American counterpart, the banh mi focuses not on the profligate piling on cold-cuts and condiments, but on a balance of ingredients and flavors including pickled vegetables (daikon, shredded carrots), jalapeños, cilantro and thinner meats than adorn American sandwiches. The canvas for the ingredients is a long, thin baguette with its own balance of textures–a pillowy inside and crusty outside.
It’s well known that pho is the most popular breakfast food in Vietnam, but according to my friend Huu Vu who grew up there, not all Vietnamese families could afford pho. With great fondness, he recalls having banh mi for breakfast on many mornings. Banh mi remains among his very favorite meals, but they’re not just for breakfast any more. Nor are they exclusively popular among Vietnamese expats. The New York Times indicates “the Vietnamese banh mi sandwich has taken New York by storm, elevating the once humble pork and pickled vegetable sandwich to heights of gastronomic chic.” Gambit, a New Orleans news magazine, calls the banh mi “New Orleans’ po-boy for the 21st century.”
It’s taken a bit longer for the banh mi to become mainstream in Albuquerque. While several Vietnamese restaurants throughout the Duke City have offered banh mi for years, the sandwich has yet to achieve the acclaim due “the best sandwich in the world.” Albuquerque The Magazine did list the banh mi at Banh Mi Coda as “one of the city’s “12 yummiest sandwiches” in its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012. My friend Ryan “Break The Chain” Scott would argue that Albuquerque’s banh mi comes from May Hong. The point is, the banh mi is starting to break through.
In early 2013, the Duke City saw the launch of the city’s second banh mi shop when Sai Gon Sandwich opened in Franklin Plaza, a timeworn shopping center on the northeast corner of Juan Tabo and Central. The menu at the combination bakery, deli and tofu house befits the diminutive three-table restaurant, but as with other diminutive diners, Sai Gon Sandwich embodies an aphorism used by Food Network glitterati Guy Fieri: “little place, big flavors.” Besides, the restaurant does a brisk take-out business and delivers throughout the neighborhood.
Those big flavors can be found in ten different banh mi (including a vegetarian option) and oversized spring rolls. In a willpower-defeating refrigerator, you’ll find various Vietnamese desserts and snack foods (including tapioca puddings, sesame balls, rice puddings, rice cakes), Vietnamese coffees and so much more. All of the restaurant’s deli meats are homemade and can be purchased by the pound so you can make your own banh mi at home. Tofu and organic soy milk are also homemade. It goes without saying that the bread is fresh baked and homemade, too.
At two per order, the spring rolls are impressive not only for their girth, but for their flavor. Each spring roll comes with lettuce, cucumbers, mint and vermicelli noodles wrapped inside a translucent rice paper served with a peanut-chili sauce. The shrimp and pork spring roll is a must have. The thinly sliced pork is visible through the top layer of the rice paper, but the shrimp are embedded deeply among the condiments. The combination is terrific. So is the peanut sauce though the chili could be just a bit more piquant.
Each banh mi comes with pickled carrots and daikon, cucumbers, sliced jalapeños, cilantro and Vietnamese mayo on some of the best freshly baked baguettes in town. Each sandwich is just over nine-inches in length, but as the photos accompanying this essay show, they hardly resemble the overstuffed American sub sandwich. In Vietnamese, “banh mi” translates both as “bread” and the sandwich using that bread. It’s a great bread with a crusty, but not crumbly exterior and a soft, but not doughy interior. The balance of ingredients with bread which make for a great banh mi is as spot-on as a tightrope walker.
During our inaugural visit, my Kim and I ordered three hand-crafted banh mi, consuming half of each one at the restaurant and taking the remaining halves home for later. Each banh mi is absolutely delicious, replete with a wondrous interplay of pickled vegetables, cured meats, condiments and aromatic herbs. Jalapeños are sparsely used, another example of how the sandwich emphasizes balance over heat. Expertise in the fine art of charcuterie is evident in each savory and sumptuous meat.
I don’t personally have the audacious nature to declare the banh mi as the Duke City’s best sandwich, but it’s certainly among a select few in that elite ballpark. Sai Gon Sandwich is a paragon of perfection when it comes to a sandwich that’s slowly, but inevitably taking America by storm.