Kyle and I have been on a quest for awesome banh mi sandwiches since we moved to Austin. We assumed this would be an easy feat, considering Austin has truly wowed us in many different food categories, namely the obvious: barbecue, Tex-Mex, authentic Mexican, burgers. Which happen to be some of our very favorites. One oddity — pizza doesn’t appear to be as huge down here as it is in the Northeast. We’ve found some great places (Home Slice, East Side Pies, Firefly food truck), but they just don’t pop up as frequently. Makes me want to give Boston and New York a big kiss for the many brick ovens they’ve blessed us with.
To get back on track, finding the ideal Vietnamese sandwich here hadn’t happened yet as of last weekend. Kyle tried one from Bite Mi (by UT campus) and we both tried them at Pho Oanh (one of 3 highly regarded Vienamese restaurants within a few blocks of each other on East Oltorf). Both were good, but not mind-blowing. To be fair, we were spoiled by Allston’s Super 88 banh mis back in Boston, which remain the best either of us has ever had. Perfect chewy bread, char-grilled meat, and some amazing sauce…I’d never know where to begin to replicate it. A creamy Asian-inspired honey mustard is the best way I could describe it. Also super cheap – $3.50 each and plenty filling.
A craving for these can’t be satisfied by anything else. So, we took matters into our own hands late Saturday morning and had a homemade banh mi brunch out on the lake.
It’s not a super quick meal to prepare, but every single step is enjoyable and SUPER easy and straightforward. The reward far outweighs the prep time. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do on a warm, lazy weekend than cook (and eat and drink) outdoors.
In my opinion, the perfect banh mi consists of the following:
- The proper roll. My Dad taught me that this is almost the most important component for this kind of sandwich, and I couldn’t agree more. What you want is a french-style roll that is chewy/slightly crackly/flaky on the outside and soft/tender on the inside. And as fresh as you can get. For you lucky Austinites, the white sandwich rolls that HEB sells individually out of the big plastic bins for 25 cents a piece are absolutely, 100% spot on. I remember the first time Kyle and I bought them for deli meat sandwiches, we noticed that they seemed practically made for Vietnamese sandwiches.
- The meat! I wanted to experiment a bit, so I tried white meat chicken, dark meat chicken (thighs), and pork belly (which is essentially bacon before it’s smoked and cured). Lots and lots of different kinds of meats are traditional on this sandwich — it’d be harder to find one that wouldn’t be good. Chicken breast is sort of the safest route, in that it would probably appeal to the most people (plus, it’s easy…I’m sure a lot of you have some in the freezer right now). The dark meat chicken was my preference, though. Because it has a higher fat content, it holds up better to high heat cooking and doesn’t dry out. Really though, both were awesome. The pork belly came out good too, but it’s very rich and I liked it best mixed with the chicken on the sandwich, not standing alone as the only meat.
- The pickled veggies – usually carrot and daikon (a type of Asian radish). Kyle opted to pickle the cucumber too.
- The fresh veggies and herbs – cucumber, jalapeño, scallions, cilantro.
- The sauces. Mayo is absolutely essential here. If it really grosses you out, smear just a little on until the bread soaks it up and you can’t see it anymore. Or have someone else do that step for you :). I even bought full fat mayo just for this because I really do notice a difference (normally we try to stick to the olive oil mayo that has half the fat and calories of the heavier type). Additionally, Sri Racha is fantastic (as it is on almost everything) and my other favorite is Hoisin sauce (Asian BBQ-style sauce, this is usually what they serve with moo shu at Chinese restaurants). Any sweet Asian sauce would be good I think. Sweet chili sauce, teriyaki, duck sauce, plum sauce, whatever you like!
There’s just something about the right combination of the above ingredients. It’s almost difficult for me to type this right now because I want another one SO badly. Here’s how I did mine, and even if one of you awesome readers tries this out at home, I will feel like I changed the world.
First, get yourself a beer. I bought a 6-pack of Asahis just for this occasion and drinking Asian beer while preparing these sandwiches made it even more fun.
Now, even though barbecued meat and pickled veggies are involved, never fear — you don’t have to have anything prepped in advance of the day you make these.
You’ll start by quick-pickling your carrots and daikon. I used one large daikon root (the size of a huge carrot) and three small- to medium-sized carrots. This was more than enough for 4 sandwiches. Peel all and then chop into your desired shape. I think they’re usually julienned (like little matchsticks) but Kyle had a great idea to just continue using the peeler on the veggies to get thin, wide strips. I tried both, and I liked the “peeled” style better — it absorbed the pickling liquid quicker. Plus, it was less labor intensive this way.
Mix together 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar, 1/4 cup white sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Whisk until the sugar has pretty much dissolved. Now throw your veggies into this mixture. I’m sure you could use any vinegar but this is my favorite for Asian dishes. The veggies will be pickled enough in 30 minutes (just leave them outside the fridge for maximum pickling liquid absorption if you’re giving them only half an hour) and can stay in this mixture for days. I put mine in Tupperware so I could flip it upside down or shake it every once in a while to make sure the pickling mixture hits all of the pieces.
Next, you’ll want to prep your meat. For the white meat chicken: I took one large chicken breast, trimmed it (I’m picky about chicken in that I don’t like “googlies.” One of the billion advantages of cooking at home — you know every single thing that’s going into your food!). Then, I sliced the breast into half-inch medallion-like pieces. I rubbed each piece with some veggie oil, placed it on a sheet of saran wrap, covered with another sheet of saran wrap, and pounded each piece to half its original thickness. This is definitely not necessary, but I love thin pieces of chicken best (mostly because they have more surface area which means more places for sauce to stick). Makes them extra tender too. Totally fine to skip the pounding though. I threaded the chicken pieces onto wooden skewers that I had soaked in water for a bit so they don’t catch fire on the grill.
And for the pork belly, I had the butcher cut thick pieces for me. I turned the oven on to about 250°, put the pieces directly on the rack, put a pan underneath to catch drippings, and then went to the grocery store for an hour. Most people would probably tell me that’s a great way to start a grease fire and burn our place to the ground, and they’d be right. Luckily it worked out just fine. I wanted to render a lot of the fat out of these pieces and make them crispy, but not cook them all the way (the grilling later will finish them up).
Your meat is almost prepped. For the final step before cooking, sprinkle all meat with soy sauce, on both sides. This is the only meat seasoning you need up until this point.
For the remaining veggies, just slice ’em the way you like for sandwiches. I used my trusty mandolin and did the cukes on the bias and very thin. Also, make sure to buy English cucumber for these, the kind that comes with the cellophane covering it. You can eat the skins on this variety, and they’re seedless, which makes for a better overall sandwich experience. I did the same for the jalapeños. For the cilantro, I just rinsed it well and left the leaves whole. The scallions can be chopped.
Last thing you’ll need to do in advance is make a sauce to brush onto the meat as it’s grilling. I did 1 part sweet chili sauce and 1 part hoisin. Again, I think any Asian-inspired sauce with some sugar in it is going to work marvelously (or mix honey with some soy sauce and lime or orange juice). The point is just to get a little carmelization on the meat once it’s cooking.
Now, pack everything up (including sauces) and head outside! If you’re grilling. If it’s raining, or if you don’t have a grill, or you don’t want to grill, stay inside and sauté your meat on the stove top. Either way, open another beer.
We got our coals hot, but not as hot as you’d want for burgers or steak. I guess the best way to achieve this is to use less charcoal and spread it evenly on the bottom of the grill after it’s hot. We just bought one of those grill towers that speeds up the burning of the coals and it’s proven to be a good investment so far. For a gas grill, just set it to low.
Throw the meat on and cook for a few minutes on each side. After you’ve flipped it, brush sauce on it, give it another minute, turn again, and sauce the other side. The reason we didn’t sauce the meat before it went on is because the sugar could burn too quickly. Adding it towards the end was perfect.
Once your meat is cooked, pull it off, let it sit a few minutes (if you can!) and begin sandwich assembly. I cut my roll in half, mayoed both sides very liberally, then built, from the bottom up: meat, pickled carrot and daikon, cukes, cilantro, jalapeños, scallions, then drizzled Sri Racha and hoisin over the top. Smush it down, cut it in half, and voila, the next few minutes you’ll spend eating this sandwich will feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven.
The crispy outside of the roll gives way to the glazed meat and squishy inner bread saturated with the rich sauces, complemented perfectly by tangy, salty pickled veggies and crunchy fresh ones. The cilantro adds awesome freshness and pulls everything together. All-in-all, it’s just the most perfect combo of ingredients.
Hope you enjoy this perfect summer sandwich and I’d love to hear about any additions anyone can think of. I think basil would taste good on here too (I love it in my Thai food) and could definitely take a little more heat by replacing the jalapenos with serranos. Also, if you’re not a carnivore, grilled tofu or portobello mushrooms could be a great sub for the meat, you could even prepare them the exact same way with the soy and sweet sauce. I thought about mixing the mayo with a little hoisin and Sri Racha too to create my own “secret sauce.” Yum. Kyle squeezed lime juice on his sandwich too, I will try that next time for sure.
Here’s the building of my leftover sandwich that I had for breakfast the next morning:
Enjoy! Thank you for reading and happy eating. Also beware of the food coma that follows. I knew I had done something right after I watched Kyle down two of these sandwiches in one sitting and then fall deep into a paralyzing food coma for the next two hours. 🙂
*Also, thanks to Kyle for the awesome pictures. I can take credit for the crappier ones, but the nice ones (meat being glazed, etc.) were all him!