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Mar 13, 2012 08:21 AM

When is a Banh Mi not a Banh Mi?

I saw a tweet yesterday proclaiming that Myers + Chang has a tea-smoked duck Banh Mi for lunch, and the idea really sounded very good, and it was lunch time. I got a terrific parking space, the restaurant was maybe half-full for lunch, and those soft white chairs at the tables (not the counter seating) are really, really comfortable.

There are four different types of Banh Mi on their lunch menu, for $8 each, and the tea-smoked duck Banh Mi was a daily special, which turned out to be $12. I ordered that, and a mint-lime rickey ($5). The Banh Mi arrived with a few "prawn crackers" and a kind of slaw of marinated mild peppers.

I feel like I should be putting "Banh Mi" in quotes throughout though, because what I got was a tasty, even delicious sandwich, but it wasn't a Banh Mi. The bread wasn't Banh Mi bread, the filling wasn't Banh Mi filling, the two different sauces inside the sandwich weren't Banh Mi sauces, and the accompaniments aren't served with a Banh Mi. I don't mean to be a stickler for authenticity when the Banh Mi itself is a relatively recent product of French/Vietnamese fusion, but since when did "Banh Mi" become "sandwich with Asian filling"?

Actually, this sandwich was really quite delicious, and nothing like a Banh Mi, so it seems unfair to compare a $12 sandwich and a $5 soda (so a ~ $21 lunch, including tax and tip) to a $3.50 Banh Mi and a $2.50 bubble tea from nearby Chinatown. However, if they keep calling it a Banh Mi, it's hard not to make that comparison, and in that comparison their value doesn't compare well. As a tasty smoked duck sandwich on a crusty, pressed roll, served in comfortable surroundings, it holds its own.

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  1. I remember the first time I ever ordered a Banh Mi - from the cafe where Rosie's went in on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge.

    I hesitated a little bit with the pronunciation (this being before "bahn mi" became a household word) and asked the guy how to properly say it.

    He replied, "Dude, it's just a chicken sandwich."

    Your tea-smoked duck sandwich looks and sounds awesome.

    1. Some places fill a tortilla with ham/turkey/swiss or grilled salmon or rice and curry. But they are smart enough not to call it a burrito even though it is essentially the same. They call it a "wrap".

      On the flipside, if you take taco ingredients like carne asada or carnitas and fold it in rice paper or sandwich bread, you shouldn't really call it a taco even if the fillings are the same.

      So in this case, I'm of the mindset that this shouldn't be called a "banh mi". Like you said, a banh mi is a product of French/Vietnamese fusion. So as such, it should be on a French baguette. The "original" (if you can call it that) or the one that became widely popular in Vietnam is mostly of French design - buttered baguette, pate, jamon, head cheese, mayonaisse. The Vietnamese contribution was pickled carrot/daikon (which mimic cornichons), cilantro, and jalapeno. Even the "Maggi" seasoning sauce (NOT soy sauce) was a introduced by the French.

      So by filling a hoagie roll with East Asian ingredients, a "banh mi" it does not make. Filling a tortilla with rice noodles, shrimp/pork, mint, bean sprouts does not make a "goi cuon" or spring roll. Folding Wonder Bread over carnitas does not make a taco.

      I'm sure the sandwich was delicious.

      1. Put quotes around it, by all means, and then judge it in context. Is it delicious? Worth $8 or $12 given everything that comes with it (atmosphere, service, location, ability to order other good eats/drinks there, too)?

        I think we can agree it's non-canonical, and move on. I like it, while noting I'd rather have a more traditional $3 one most of the time, and do get 20 of those for every M+C version I have, despite it being convenient to me. It is miles better since they switched from the original roll, which was all wrong, though I still see room for improvement there. I have to say, a curry-burger version I had some months back was really tasty.

        4 Replies
        1. re: MC Slim JB

          I was going to say, "when it costs more than $3.50".

          1. re: nsenada

            and when the server prepping it asks you if you want it spicy? (and you really have to drive the point home that yes, us WASP-y caucasian types can handle heat as well.. )

          2. re: MC Slim JB

            To MC's point about context: in the last week I've had both the eggplant "banh mi" at Strip-T's and a barbecued beef banh mi at Banh Mi Ba Le on Dot Ave. Both really enjoyable, and worth their respective prices. Maybe a real banh mi is defined by the speed with which it's prepared: at Ba Le, the women make the sandwich in about thirty seconds.

            1. re: newhound

              I love watching that blur-of-arms process at Ba Le -- it needs a YouTube video -- and seeing into the side room where they bake their own bread.


          3. The Boston chowhound board is not friendly to non-traditional Banh Mi as I learned a couple years ago. :)


            1. That's how I feel about the "banh mi" at Cutty's. I grumble silently thinking about it.