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New-York style banh mi? (Is this a thing?)

We've tried a handful of banh mi places in and around Boston since we moved here from New York, and while many of them have been good - and they may be more "authentic", if that has any meaning when applied to Vietnamese sandwiches on French baguettes being sold to American yuppies in gentrifying neighborhoods, than my old standbys in NYC - none of them have had the meat mix that I know and love(d). The banh mi I ate for my first few years of banh mi eating had the same veggies, bread and condiments I've seen around here, but for meat they had a combination of pate, ham and ground pork, all on one sandwich. Banh Mi Ba Le and La Baguette in Dorchester, Cali Sandwich in Lynn, and (so help me) the Bon Me Truck all seem to serve single-meat sandwiches: ham, or barbecued pork, or pate, but never the pate/ham/ground pork mix.

So my question: Are there places in Boston where I can get my three-pork banh mi fix? Is this a specialty with a Vietnamese term that I could ask for? Or is this just a particular regional American variation that didn't make it across the Yankees/Red Sox line?

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  1. A bánh mì with pork liver pâté and a variety of Vietnamese cold cuts (typically Vietnamese "ham", which sometimes looks fatty like mortadella, head cheese, and pork roll) is available at many Boston-area banh mi stands, including Ba Le and La Baguette. They're usually listed as "cold cuts" bánh mì, or sometimes the "special" or "combo" bánh mì.

    The French baguette, mayo and charcuterie are all traditional, legacies of the French colonial period of Vietnam's history. It's not unusual for bánh mì baguettes to include a significant admixture of rice flour, which gives them a more crackly crust.

    Some approximate transliterations:

    dặc biệt -- "special" or "combo"
    thịt nguội -- cold cuts, sometimes means just Vietnamese ham
    chả lụa OR giò lụa -- pork roll, basically a fine-grained sausage
    giò thú -- head cheese
    gan xay OR pa tê -- pâté
    thit khia -- don't see this so much locally, but it's cured, unsmoked pork belly

    http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

    2 Replies
    1. re: MC Slim JB

      Slim, many thanks for the thorough explanation. Out of curiosity, have you seen the dặc biệt with ground pork anywhere? I've come across a few banh mi specials that have a mix of cold meats and pate, but none go the extra mile with the hot ground pork that (in my mind at least) puts it over the artery-clogging top.

      1. re: cjd260

        I've heard pork roll referred to as "ground pork", which it is, though it holds together like a fine-grained sausage or dense pate. Perhaps you're thinking of xíu mại, pork meatballs? These are typically done is a sweetish, thin tomato sauce and crushed: I have described them as Vietnamese Sloppy Joe. But I've always enjoyed this as a solo filling, never seen it combined with cold cuts. Many local places with big selections of fillings offer this. Last place I had it was Bánh Mì Ngon in West Roxbury, but it's not hard to find.

        http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

    2. Hong Cuc, a (literally) hidden gem in Lowell, has a combo that is a Hound favorite.

      2 Replies
      1. re: greygarious

        I love the combo sandwich. Can't beat the price - $3.50

        1. re: gltsoi

          Split the combo and BBQ beef yesterday from Hong Cuc.
          Both delicious!

           
           
      2. Moody's in Waltham can easily do that for you .

        41 Replies
        1. re: opinionatedchef

          Much as I love the Moody's banh mi, I'd caution against setting expectations that it hits the same notes as a traditional Vietnamese three-cold-cuts-and-pate banh mi.

          On paper, it looks pretty similar to a dac biet, but in practice, it has a distinctly American and Eastern European deli slant to it, including the bread.

          http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

          1. re: MC Slim JB

            Plus, a $12.50 banh mi will never be the "New York-style" banh mi the OP is looking for. Something that sells for $3 in the back of a Chinatown jewelry store (a la Saigon Banh Mi on Grand St.) is more like it!

              1. re: Luther

                Yep. If you can polish off one in a single sitting, you're more of a trencherman than I. The next-day leftover half isn't as good as the fresh original, but it's still damned impressive.

                http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                1. re: MC Slim JB

                  Please note that I wasn't passing judgment on the price, or on the sandwich (which I haven't tried), but do I stand by my proposition that an "authentic" (whatever that means) banh mi should be super cheap and sold in an odd or unusual locale (like the back of a jewelry store).

                  1. re: Blumie

                    ...or how about a sandwich shop?

                    1. re: Blumie

                      This seems like conflating causation and correlation to me.

                      I've yet to see what I'd consider a *real* banh mi at a normal place (even Bon Me). However I don't see why it's not possible - they just either choose not to and/or choose to misuse the currently trendy term.

                      1. re: jgg13

                        What do you mean by "a normal place"? Are you really saying that Pho Viet, for instance, isn't offering real banh mi?

                        1. re: Allstonian

                          You do realize that I was countering the person who said banh mi could only show up in weirdo spits, right?

                          1. re: jgg13

                            Not when what you wrote was this:

                            "I've yet to see what I'd consider a *real* banh mi at a normal place (even Bon Me)."

                            That sounds like you agree with the person who says banh mi can only show up in weirdo spots, because you've never seen one at a "normal" place. You can see why people are confused, can't you?

                            1. re: Jenny Ondioline

                              Ooh, ooh, I'll play! "It's not a real banh mi unless you get it from a roadside cart located off a furiously busy Hanoi street that you took a scary cyclo ride to get to."

                              I suppose there's some romance to be found in "quirky" locations, but that doesn't necessarily map to quality or consistency or traditional preparation. The bygone Lu's was charmingly located in a hallway between a Thai jewelry store and an Asian market, but its banh mi were inferior to those made at Mei Sum, the Cantonese bakery across the street that still makes my favorite banh mi in Chinatown.

                              A better rule of thumb in my mind is the $4 barrier (once the $2.50 barrier, but inflation). It's probably a more traditional sandwich in terms of bread, other ingredients, and preparation if it's priced under that.

                              There are exceptions: Banh Mi Ngon in West Roxbury is an excellent, pretty traditional place selling $5-$6 banh mi, presumably due to higher rents and what the market will bear.

                              http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                              1. re: MC Slim JB

                                Yes, Jenny Ondioline and I, in conversation, had informally set a $5 barrier, and agreed that the make-or-break on "*real* banh mi" for us would be the roll.

                                1. re: Allstonian

                                  Agreed: the bread separates the merely good from the great. I also feel better if the sandwich is prepared assembly-line fashion in a blur of arms. Banh Mi Ba Le is probably my second-favorite (after Pho Viet's) in town, and this spectacle is part of my enjoyment.

                                  http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                  1. re: MC Slim JB

                                    When Bon Me first started their truck, I never understood why I could go to Mei Sum and have my sandwich in my hand in about 1-2 minutes even with a line - yet with *no* line at the truck it'd take about 5-10 mins to get my sandwich.

                                    The B&M (the only one convenient to me now) is much faster though.

                                    1. re: MC Slim JB

                                      Went to Banh Mi Ba Le today. Got a bbq beef extra hot extra cilantro and a bao [bbq chicken?] from the countertop, and a coke for 5.50. The sandwich was pretty awesome except for the fish sauce smell. At first i thought it was bad beef but i did not taste anything off. I then remembered the process of the construction of said sammy. Next time no sauce

                                      1. re: Locutus

                                        I like fish sauce, but you wouldn't be the first customer to be put off by its fermented aroma and (to a lesser extent) flavor.

                                        http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                  2. re: MC Slim JB

                                    I remember Lu's before it had a name or a door, it was sort of in the corner of the supermarket (pre C-Mart?) at the end of the hallway that connected the supermarket to the jewelry store. I liked it better than Mei Sum because they used bird's eye chili rather than jalapeno. For me, that's the thing that sends it over the top. Bird's eye chili is the real deal and you never see it anymore.

                                    Banh Mi back then were only $1.00 so I'd get two pretty regularly for lunch. I was a little full but had no problem wolfing them down right on the sidewalk. Those were my favorite lunch memories from those days.

                                    1. re: tatsu

                                      163 has bird chiles. That said they almost never actually give them to me. Once Mrs Jgg13 ordered the exact same as me with the same verbiage - on,y one of us had the chiles ;(

                                      1. re: jgg13

                                        Just an aside. Bird chiles are really easy to grow..even in a pot. Looks pretty and yields tons of chiles.

                                        If anyone likes them (like me), it's real easy to have a steady supply.

                                        1. re: 9lives

                                          I used to grow them myself (and you're right!) but there are always a boatload of them at the market basket near me so now I use that space for chiles I can't find :)

                                          1. re: jgg13

                                            (off topic) jgg, do you have a good local source for chile seedlings? I grow a few in Earthboxes. In 2012, I bought a "black chile" plant from Russo's, recognizing that it was a poblano. It was amazingly productive. I haven't been able to find any poblanos or anything similar at Russo's, so I grabbed two at Wilson Farm last year and they barely produced at all. I'm not sure if it was just an off year or the variety of poblano, but I'd like to try a different source.

                                            1. re: bear

                                              Stillman's grows a wide variety of peppers - they have a seasonal greenhouse store in Lunenburg or you could ask them to bring in a plant for you to one of the local farmers markets.

                                              We've also been very happy with the pepper plants we've gotten at Russell's Garden Center, although we usually stick with jalapeños. We did get a poblano from them a couple of years ago and were quite happy with it as well.

                                              1. re: Allstonian

                                                Thanks, Allstonian. I'll hit up Russell's tomorrow and then get in touch with Stillman's if I don't have any luck. Great idea. The Lexington market opens May 27 so that shouldn't be too late. My Waltham market doesn't open until mid-June.
                                                We usually grow some serranos, habaneros and poblanos. I think I'll add some jalapeños this year and hope they have some heat. I do love the flavor, but some varieties have had the heat bred right out of them.

                                                1. re: bear

                                                  Our plants the year before last delivered about the fieriest jalapeños I've ever had.

                                                  1. re: Jenny Ondioline

                                                    Awesome. Maybe there's some hope for salvaging the jalapeño genes.

                                                2. re: Allstonian

                                                  Well, I just got back from Russell's. I've been a few times before, but it must have just been for hanging plants. I had forgotten just how big the place is and didn't realize what variety they had. Anyway, they had three varieties of poblano! We eat lots of rajas and I use them quite a bit in the summer. I also like to roast up a bunch and freeze them, so I got one of each variety so I can compare for next year. My earth boxes will be filled with lots of good things this year, so thanks!

                                                  1. re: bear

                                                    Yes, they're HUGE - I don't think I've ever managed to check out all the sections that I planned to on a visit there. My birthday present this year and last has been carte blanche shopping for annuals, and we've been extremely happy with the veggie plants we've gotten there as well. Since I grow in containers on a city stoop with limited sunlight, I appreciate the fact that I can get good-sized young plants that give me a real head start on our short growing season.

                                                3. re: bear

                                                  I almost always grow from seed. Last year mrs jgg picked some up I think at the place in union sq but that was because I accidentally fried my seedlings

                                                  Also, as I mentioned in the previous post - I like to grow stuff that I can't easily find locally at stores, and those types of chiles also tend to be harder to find as seedlings.

                                                  1. re: jgg13

                                                    Yeah, one of these years I'll get my act together and grow from seed. My house is the size of a matchbook, though, so space is an issue!

                                                    1. re: bear

                                                      I'm lucky enough to have a small, sunny porch but that's enough room for a few plants a year :)

                                                      Earlier on, I have an old aerogarden that I just use as a grow light. It goes in an out of the way corner - annoying to lose the space but it's only a few months.

                                                      1. re: jgg13

                                                        Hmmm...maybe my husband's guitars can share some space with an aerogarden...not a bad idea.

                                            2. re: tatsu

                                              Yes - that was the Thai Binh market.

                                              1. re: tatsu

                                                I had a Bahn Mi from Mei Sum yesterday and they used Bird chillies (as they always have) when I asked for it spicey. Maybe you just got them on a whackey day when they couldn't find them.

                                            3. re: Jenny Ondioline

                                              I was reading Blumie as saying they can't possibly come from some mainstream, whitebread storefront. I disagree with that notion, but I haven't seen that happen. Bon Me is the closest I can think of - I wouldn't call that a true banh mi, but when I decided to just think of it as a tasty sandwich I quit caring.

                                        2. re: jgg13

                                          Mei Sum is pretty normal, it's just a bakery coffee shop place. Certainly plenty of good banh mi at large-scale sandwich specialists in California and NYC. I guess now that I think of it, there aren't many places around Boston like Ba Le where it's just a regular sandwich deli, not some hipster shit

                                          1. re: Luther

                                            I'd say that's true for folks around these parts. But outside of worlds like CH I know a lot of folks out & about who view chinatown to be pretty exotic. And now we're talking a dingy hole in the wall in chinatown? When Bon Me started up, I started describing them as "banh mi for white people" . Perhaps I just don't give people enough credit.

                                            1. re: jgg13

                                              I've very happy for Bon Me's success, and they're doing God's work in terms of evangelism, but I secretly believe that given the chance, most folks who could get over their absurd squeamishness about Chinatown would agree that a $3.50 Mei Sum or 163 banh mi kicks the ass of the $6 Bon Me version for flavor, texture, and value.

                                              http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                              1. re: MC Slim JB

                                                Is it really only $6? I always feel like it costs me upwards of $10 when I go there. Granted, I often get a beverage or something.

                                                But yes, I'd love love love it if the chinatown banh mi spots were a reasonable lunch distance for me. If Bon Me and Mei Sum were next to each other, as much as I like Bon Me I'd never go there.

                                          2. re: jgg13

                                            C'mon guys, I was just being a little cheeky. Of course a good banh mi can be had anywhere where they put the right focus into the bread and the preparation, be it a sandwich shop or a restaurant or a food truck or a jewelry store. But still, as with any food item, there's some added satisfaction for me when it comes from a more unusual locale.

                              2. Pho viet in Allston and my fav place in Chinatown both do a mixed Bahn mi in this style.

                                8 Replies
                                1. re: StriperGuy

                                  Striper, which is your favorite place in Chinatown? Thinking I may do a lunchtime excursion from my office downtown.

                                  1. re: cjd260

                                    Name is eluding me. First block if Chinatown coming from Washington on your left if you search it is often mentioned in best Bahn mi threads.

                                    1. re: StriperGuy

                                      I believe that's mei sum, I think it was the first banh mi place in Chinatown

                                      1. re: Luther

                                        The first bahn mi "place" was a Vietnamese guy selling them from a cart at the bottom of the Chinatown food court (now Avana Lofts). He was the only business in town, and became very popular. I always remember the occasional worker who would buy like 20 of them to bring back to a crew for lunch. This was before there were pho places in Chinatown, and really any other memorable Vietnamese food. It was only later that everyone seems to have jumped on the banh mi craze.

                                        1. re: kobuta

                                          Mei sum has sold them since 1988 or 89 at least. The multi cold cut laden one requested by the poster is often referred to as a "ham" Bahn mi.

                                          1. re: StriperGuy

                                            Yes, Mei Sum added the banh mi to their menu and Thai Binh had the stall on the side (the first to offer beef banh mi, if I recall) after the guy with his cart was doing serious business. The first dedicated banh mi store came along a few years after them -- I think the one off Washington across from Penang, and they added variations like tofu.

                                            I tried 163 for the first time a few weeks ago, but I have rarely strayed from these original banh mi places (RIP Thai Binh stall). It's a such a quick but tasty bite that I'm surprised it took this long for the sandwich to become more mainstream.

                                            1. re: kobuta

                                              There was also the cart in the Thai Binh market.

                                    2. Striper, I think it might the the one I like too. Is it 163 Vietamese Sandwiches at 66 Harrison Ave?

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: catsmeow

                                        Coming from Washington, on your left is Mei Sum. 163 would be way down on the right.