The French occupation of Indochina forged what may be the perfect sandwich: the bánh mì

By Mike Ryan (mikeryan1121@gmail.com)

The Moo Mì: braised short rib with mortar-pounded chili paste, lime, lemongrass, ginger and chili-mayo sauce served on a French baguette Photo by Mike Ryan

The Moo Mì: braised short rib with mortar-pounded chili paste, lime, lemongrass, ginger and chili-mayo sauce served on a French baguette
Photo by Mike Ryan

Under the dark imperialist cloud of France’s occupation of Southeast Asia arose a silver-lined sandwich: the bánh mì.

Within the crusty confines of a deliciously simple French baguette, other French staples like butter and pâté became wedded with much livelier ingredients such as cilantro, cucumber, jalapeño, pickled carrots and daikon to create a harmonious marriage of flavors: a meld of rich, savory, vibrant and spicy.

More than half a century later, it’s a tradition that’s alive and well at the corner of Lincoln Boulevard and Rose Avenue. A busy corner for half the day and a proverbial parking lot the rest of the time, this busy traffic corridor is as good a place as any to open up a sandwich shop.

Enter Bánh Mì, which is very hard to miss in one-mile-per-hour traffic.

Bánh Mì, as you may have guessed, serves bánh mì. The name is certainly on the nose, which is just as well for a sandwich that is underappreciated in the cultural mainstream and underrepresented here on the Westside. There isn’t much in the realm of Vietnamese eating in this part of L.A., which makes Bánh Mì a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

Bánh Mì keeps the menu simple, yet there is enough variety to represent everyone’s’ favorite animals to eat.

The Oink Mì offers caramelized pork belly, reduced shallots and a pâté spread.

The Moo Mì combines braised short rib with mortar-pounded chili paste, lime, lemongrass, ginger and a chili-mayo sauce.

There are two takes on chicken. One is braised in kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, ginger, chili and chili-mayo. The other boasts chicken simmered in curry and coconut milk and served with carrots, sweet and gold potatoes, lemon grass and lime.

Two veggie varieties pair tofu with either roasted chilies or curry-simmered vegetables.

There’s also a fish sandwich of lingcod braised with turmeric and dill, yogurt, spring onion, bean sprouts and lemon juice, and a breakfast Bánh Mì with fried eggs called the Wake Mì.

Every sandwich is topped with a bouquet of pickled daikon, carrots, cucumber, fresh cilantro, jalapeño and a country pâté spread or chili mayo. While the pâté is very subtle, sandwiches with the chili mayo indeed have discernible kick. All of the sandwiches yield a nice balance of meats to veggies, but the bigger flavored proteins — the short rib and pork belly, especially — really pair well with the aromatic and pickled vegetables.

There are many variations of the bánh mì, and just as many interpretations of what makes an ideal one.  The sandwiches here are a departure from what some would consider a traditional bánh mì, but in a way that raises the bar.

Chả Lụa, often the featured ingredient in other bánh mì, is a pork loaf typically made of mystery meat. There is, however, great affection for the meaty loaf — perhaps the same way Hawaiians honor Spam — and that’s why $3 has become the price point for most bánh mì, similar to the $1 street taco.

Bánh Mì’s bánh mìs range from $8 to $13 — far more than $3, but a trade-off for quality in a community that’s willing to spend that kind of cash for a lesser sandwich elsewhere.

Indeed, the bánh mì bar has been raised, but one thing that remains constant is the expectation for copious amounts of heat. Vietnamese cuisine tends to be very spicy, and the braised short rib bánh mì does not hold back on the chili paste. Since sliced jalapeños come standard on every sandwich, so there is a certain level of fire for all.

While a sandwich can be sized up from meat to veggies to accouterments, in the end it’s all about the bread.

Bánh Mì has a pretty simple formula that seems to work. The restaurant buys partly baked baguettes from a local bakery, finishes the baking in house and scoops out some of the inside before serving — like you would for a New Orleans po’boy.

The result is a bánh mì that is not at all bready — warm and crisp, but not cut-the-roof-of-your mouth crusty. It’s also a sandwich best enjoyed in house, otherwise you run the risk of a heartier fillings such as the curry chicken and vegetables breaking up the integrity of the sandwich.

But you’ll certainly want to dine in. Bánh Mì is a charming space adorned with flourishes of the motherland and a welcome refuge from the frenzied traffic outside.

Bánh Mì 307 Lincoln Blvd., Venice (310) 429-1959 banhmivenice.com

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