For as long as I can remember, the Vietnamese sandwich known as banh mi, has been a part of my life. Even as a Chinese American, this stuff would always be around my family and friends. It was cheap, easy to sell/make and tasted better than most American sandwiches. For $5, you can get at least four – one for each person in the typical 4-person Asian family. It was the go-to fill-up snack because it was cheaper than anything at McDonald's. Even if we didn't have a store-bought sandwich, we'd have some variation of the banh mi. As a kid in elementary school, I'd have my mom's mutated version which consisted of thick slices of the Vietnamese meatloaf known as cha, liverwurst (American pâté) and mayonnaise – smacked between two pieces of Wonder bread. On fishing trips with family friends, there'd be an endless supply of Capri Sun and banh mi in the cooler. Hungry? Have a banh mi! We'd pick that sandwich up with our fish and worm-flavored hands and go to town. My Lao aunt in Fresno also ran a small sandwich business right out of her kitchen and guess what we got to eat every time we were there - banh mi. Banh mi was seriously around so often it was like a brother to me – always there to wrestle and play video games with.
So you can understand why one would take a hiatus from the beloved sandwich. I was tired of it. After I graduated from high school, I don't think I touched banh mi unless I had to. As a college student, I made quick trips to Little Saigon to satisfy my broke ass. To me the food was nearly forgotten as I found love in other things such as noodles. Then around 2006, Vietnamese sandwich shops started popping up like the current food trucks as more Vietnamese residents and immigrants moved out of Rosemead and El Monte. On Valley Blvd. alone, you'll find at least a dozen places selling banh mi, including chains like Banh Mi Che Cali and Lee Sandwiches. This was the mainstream for the people of San Gabriel Valley and certainly not earth-shaking news.
Then earlier this week, my friend sent me a link to a New York Times article titled "The Vietnamese Sandwich. Banh Mi in America" by a Jordan Michelman. This was published after last year's banh mi craze in New York City which left me and I'm sure many others, scratching our head. Interesting considering most people look to New York as the pioneer of trends, especially fashion and food. This isn't the first time an article on banh mi has been published. But it was the first time I realized how long it has taken Vietnamese culture to be recognized in the history of America – especially since the Vietnamese have been here as early as the late 1960s. A few decades for New York Times to "discover" this sandwich? You don't see Jonathan Gold writing an article every 6 months on banh mi to remind us that it exists. Does something have to go through the New York "fad machine" before it gets any attention? Even in Los Angeles, the banh mi mutant can be found at places like Six (banh mi burger), Mendocino Farms (pork belly banh mi) and Nom Nom Truck (banh mi tacos). But I thought to myself, this is indeed a great time to really advertise the shit out of this delicious, Vietnamese sandwich... and really aggregate the credit it deserves.
Banh mi may be big in New York and Los Angeles right now, but it isn't big until it goes national. And when it comes to sandwiches, there's no one more sandwichy than Jared Fogle's Subway nation. Not sure why I even linked to Subway... you've got to be from space if you haven't heard of it. I like to have fun when I eat – especially with corporate places like Hometown Buffet, Souplantation and Yoshinoya. So I decided to have some fun with Subway and find out if I can actually make the Vietnamese sandwich an American favorite. But what do you call this new potential menu item?
Well, if a sandwich is a "Sammy", then a banh mi must be a "Bammy"!
On a random weeknight, I find myself standing in the most depressing line ever at Subway. There are five of us, heads tilted up 45 degrees staring at the menu of bland food. Is this what we as Americans resort to? A life of 9-6? 2 hour commutes? Buying goods by bulk at Costco? Lunches at Subway? Do I want to pay $5, $6 or $7 for a foot long blandwich? Should I have the blandwich with teriyaki sauce or the ham & bland sandwich ? The menu is simply comprised of words put up to disguise the word "bland" and there is no difference in what you order because it won't have any taste period. When a "sandwich artist" asks me what else I'd like to add to my sandwich, I usually respond with, "flavor."
But actually, as I'm standing in line with the other customers waiting for toasted boredom to be served, I smile a little. I have an advantage over the other customers and employees - and they don't even know it. I'm equipped with an actual banh mi sandwich from Chinatown's Buu Dien, some Maggi sauce, fresh jalapeno slices, scrambled eggs from home and some real Vietnamese pate. Yes! And tonight's challenge is to see whether or not I can make an actual Subway sandwich edible and dare I say, as tasty as a Vietnamese banh mi.
It's now my turn to order and I order a toasted black forest ham and turkey Foot Long for $6, which by the way is equivalent to five banh mi sandwiches at your average Vietnamese joint. I wanted to keep this as authentic to Subway's ingredients and build. I picked the black forest ham because it is the closest in color and taste to the pink, headcheese (gio thu) and BBQ pork (xa xiu) used in banh mi. I picked the turkey because it is the closest in color and taste to the grey meatloaf known as cha. For the toppings, I added cucumber, cilantro, pickled jalapeno slices, salt & pepper and a thin line of mayonnaise. No oil, vinegar or whatever liquids they offer. I asked the "sandwich artist" not to fold the sandwich over and F up the innards. They even kept it served open face for me and placed it on a tray. I'm pretty sure they considered me crazy. Love it. Haha.
I then drew an imaginary DMZ line to distinguish the Northern and the Southern region of the sandwich. On top is Subway's Sammy using original store ingredients plus pate and Maggi Sauce vs. SaigonWay's Bammy with the traditional fixings.
- plain bread
- canned, pickled jalapeños
- Maggi sauce
SaigonWay's Banh Mi
- plain bread
- fresh jalapeño slices
- cilantro with stem
- pickled radish & carrots
- Maggi sauce
- fried egg (optional, it's what I love adding to my banh mi)
For the first time in a long while, I felt fear. The last time from a serving of deep fried insects at a food stall in Cambodia. I had prepped myself with a few neck cracks and got my gag reflexes ready. I grabbed the sandwich... crumbs from the shitty bread landed on the tray. What am I doing? I took a bite and not to my surprise... there was absolutely no flavor. There was so much bland matter due to the sawdust bread and processed meat - I couldn't taste anything! Maggi Sauce is used to PROVIDE flavor. But yet it could not provide this time – it let me down. I put this sandwich down after the 2nd bite. Even a foot long of Cambodian fried insects had more flavor.
Now, on to the real test. I opened the sandwich and made sure everything was evenly distributed. It was the moment I've been waiting for. Actually the moment every American slave of the corporate lunch cafeteria known as Subway was waiting for. If I succeeded, I knew that I have done something for my country. I had at least provided ONE item on Subway's menu that actually had something called flavor. I took a bite, and I have to say, it was a familiar taste. Even though the meat wasn't the right kind, the balance of Maggi Sauce, fried egg, pate, fresh jalapeno, fresh cilantro and fresh daikon and carrots made so much sense in that sawdust bread. I actually ate half of this and partially enjoyed it. All Subway has to do is offer a few more ingredients that really don't cost anything! But you say the words pate or liverwurst and you'll lose customers. And what in the world is Maggi sauce?
My work wasn't finished tonight though. This is my palate, and I know what I'm looking for in a sandwich. The true test though was finding out whether or not the actual Subway sandwich artists would eat my fixed-up version of their blandwich. I wouldn't go in peace until I had them try it. I waited for the right moment when the customers parted with their foot longs and approached this young man. We'll call him Justin. Within a few minutes and persuasive words, I had him sitting down at the table with the "Sammy" and "Bammy" in front of him.
Justin: "What am I eating?"
Me: "You're going to eat a Subway take on a Vietnamese sandwich."
Justin: "What's in it?"
Me: "Oh nothing really. Just your meats and veggies and a few extras."
Justin: "You sure?"
Me: "Dude, I'm not trying to kill you man. Even if I was, you've got cameras rolling."
Justin actually went in and took a big bite, making sure his gums made sweet love with that sandwich. He took a few bites and then looked at me.
Justin: "Nothing. It's bland man!"
Me: "Of course it's bland. It's Subway."
Me: "Last one, try my version."
Like a good employee, Justin looked to see that there were no hungry patrons queuing up. With a reluctant look, he picked up the "Bammy" and sank his teeth in once more. But this time, to my surprise, he raised his eyebrows slightly and his eyes widened. And there was a slight bob of satisfaction.
Justin: "This is actually pretty good. I like the taste. What's in it?"
Me: "Subway's ham and turkey, fresh jalapeno, fresh cilantro, pickled radish and carrots, fried egg and the special Maggi Sauce."
Justin: "It tastes fresh. Oh man, that egg is real nice."
Me: "Yeah that's key man."
Justin: "Alright man, are we done? I gotta get back to work."
Me: "Thank you."
One down, and a whole nation to go. Is there hope for the American palate? Whether or not Subway actually decides to put this on their menu, I may not live long enough to see the revolt against bland food. I threw away the food and started packing up. As I headed out, Justin said:
Justin: "Hey man, what's that sauce you put in that sandwich?"
Me: "It's called Maggi sauce."
Justin: "What is it?"
Subway, dreams of flavored food can come true. Look I've done the POP (point-of-purchase) displays for you! Yes, I'm an ad guy! We can also start rolling your new Jared spots right away.
"Hello, I'm Jared. Remember me? I used to weigh 450 lbs. I'm over in the Far East to advertise Subway's new sandwich, "The Bammy". I've cut out the 14 hour flight for you and endured some of the roughest conditions to bring you Vietnam's delicious sandwich. We use only the freshest, greenest cilantro. Guys.... can we cut. I feel some leeches in my pants."
"Hi again, it's me Jared. I've also cut out the vicious Saigon traffic for you by riding helmet-less with my buddies Tuan and Huan. I almost wet my khakis like a little girl trying to cross the streets of Saigon! Where we going guys? My mom's expecting me home for dinner."
So, if you saw "The Bammy" on the Subway menu, would you eat it? The truth is, you'll never see this on the Subway menu just as you'll never see a delicious shawarma, torta, cemita. Even if it was on the menu, you know it wouldn't be good haha. I would take any of those ANY DAY of the week over anything from Subway. But surprisingly, as diverse as America is, the Subway people of Milford, Connecticut still feel that their current menu is a good representation of what the American palate craves. So Subway, would you like your "Bammy" toasted or not toasted?
Thanks for reading.
Thanks for reading.