The Prose and Condiments of the American Sandwich
In addition to racking up library hours, the second prong of my two-pronged approach to serious sandwich research involves me eating a lot of sandwiches. Lucky for me, Boston is home to both a wealth of libraries and a trove of notable sandwiches. If it were permissible to eat sandwiches in the library, then I would certainly do that, but rules are rules, and alas, I am ever en route between a sandwich and a musty reference tome. Such is the sandwich life, lived between two slices. No complaints.
My first properly documented hands-on sandwich excursion took place on Friday, when I took advantage of an unexpectedly open afternoon to commit a specific sandwich to record via my stomach and a few notes and snapshots.
New Saigon Sandwich, despite its diminutive storefront in the shadow of the Chinatown McDonald’s, feeds customers from a menu of impressive size and variety, though the restaurant is probably best known and most frequented for its “French Style Sub,” or Banh Mi. The banh mi is an excellent example of the kind of historical and cultural mapping required of culinary research, especially sandwich research.
Banh mi is a synthesis of tastes resulting from the French colonial influence in Vietnam. Served on a slitted loaf of French bread, the sandwich can be stuffed with any number of typically “meaty” fillings, from cold cuts to shredded pork to vegetarian tofu. Anointed with mayo and soy sauce, the sandwich is then garnished with a variety of pungent vegetable components.
At New Saigon Sandwich, every banh mi comes dressed with mayo, cucumber, pickled carrot, onion, chile pepper, and a generous clipping of cilnatro. I ordered a tofu sandwich with all the traditional garnishes.
Perhaps the best way to describe my sandwich is to say that it certainly left its mark. The piling up of unmistakable flavors (onion, cilantro, fresh chiles) made for an impactful first bite and a persistent, though not unpleasant aftertaste. The bread, stacked up in a big plastic bin behind the sandwich counter, was incredibly crispy and flaky on the outside, and appropriately chewy on the inside. In my eagerness, I did cut the roof of my mouth on the crispy bread. I’m not saying this to suggest that the crispiness of the bread was anything but perfect–that’s just how excited I was to eat it. If it had been a pizza, I would have burned that part of my mouth.
The tofu was spicy, and the vegetables pungent and crisp. I think the sign of a really good sandwich is the eater’s inability to decide whether she should scarf or savor. I tried both. In the end, all I knew was that I wanted another sandwich. All the sandwiches at New Saigon are priced at $3.00, regardless of how they are filled.
An outgrowth of Vietnamese and French culinary sensibilities, the banh mi has carved its own unique space in the culinary exploits of American eaters. I first learned about the sandwich through David Kamp and Marion Rosenfeld in their snarky, informative text The Food Snob’s Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon of Gastronomical Knowledge. Part of the book’s entry for banh mi reads:
Long an unremarkable if satisfying staple of ASIAN STREET FOOD, the banh mi has recently emerged as a fetish object for Caucasian Sandwich Snobs, first on the West Coast, where Vietnamese immigrants popularized it, and then in the Northeast, where competitive food journalists trip over each other to declare this storefront’s or that pushcart’s as “the best damned banh mi in the city.”
(The capitalization of “Asian street food” indicates that the topic is covered in a separate entry listed elsewhere in the book. This kind of cross-referencing makes for an extremely useful culinary resource. The book’s entry for Asian street food names Anthony Bourdain as a notable enthusiast.)
Check out the book here
New Saigon Sandwich is located at 696 Washington Street in Boston. It is more than worth the trip.
Stay tuned for further installments in my “Sandwich Excursion” series, not to mention only the most intriguing of sandwich-related discoveries.