Sunday, 13 May 2012

Bánh Mi

I still have fond memories of one of the first Banh Mi’s I ever ate. A lovely Vietnamese family, who had escaped their home country at some point and settled in Vientiane, owned it the capital of Laos.
If memory serves me right they had a small shop, which I used to buy my cigarettes from, but it was the small cart they had outside their shop that has stayed with me all these years.
I’ve always been a big sandwich eater, and even though I came from a really dull town, I’d even eaten a few baguettes. But nothing was to prepare me for what I was about to have.

Those memories of my first visit to Laos back in 2001 and eating Banh Mi almost everyday still linger on in my memory.
The fresh bread, the pate, the pickled carrots and herbs that I never knew existed, the chilli sauce to tickle my fancy all seemed to work in unison and blew my mind. I’d even be real indulgent and have a spread of La Vache Qui Rit, (hey we are in French Indochina) just to blend the two cultures together even more.
Sadly it would take me several more years before I was to enter in other parts of French Indochina, ie Cambodia and Vietnam, where I got to experience those delicious baguettes all over again.

I think I hit the perfect Banh Mi sandwich in Danang, where this old lady had a small cart in amongst other Banh Mi stalls, but she was the only one who could be bothered to serve us that day.
The magic that she gave us, hit us by surprise. Pure Bamh Mi heaven is all I can say. A perfect marriage of savoury, spicy and tangy melding together in an East meets west fusion that technically should not be possible, but with the loving care of this lady I had reached Banh Mi heaven.
The strange thing is I should be judging all Banh Mi’s by this one, but in fact it is that first Banh Mi that all are judged by. A simple cart that no longer exists, as the family moved away to I do not know where when I returned to Vientiane a few years later.
I love Banh Mi, but to be honest I have not been looking too hard to find a place that will give me those memories all over again. Mainly as living in Stoke Newington, I cannot just pop out and get one quickly. It’s impossible. So this is now becoming a once in a while treats, although recently I’ve been making my way to Soho a lot just to eat at Banh Mi 11.

From their small stall on the fast becoming epicentre of street food in central London, Berwick Street, Banh Mi 11 are churning out Banh Mi’s to a very high standard.
I am finding it impossible to walk past their stall nowadays, that is why it has taken me so long to try the pizza at Pizza Pilgrims. Now that was worth the wait.
Their Banh Mi, so far is the best I’ve tried outside of Asia. That may sound like a big statement, which it is, but outside of Asia, London is it.

Anyhows you can taste the love in their banh mi, the bread makes it and the lightly toasted demi baguettes are still warm when you receive them.
All of them are filled with carrot and radish pickles, lots of coriander and depending on how hot you like it, chilli sauce.
Those alone would make a very good Banh Mi, well for a veggie, but the choices of pork belly (which sometimes I find a little too chewy), Imperial Barbecue (pork belly marinated in caramel and lemongrass, my favourite) and Fish Q (juicy chunks of catfish marinated in turmeric) make these the best outside of Asia.
I’ve been lucky enough to be able to sample these many many times over the last few months in their Berwick Street Market stall, sadly though this is al coming to an end next week when I begin work again in Clapham.
They now have a stall in Venn Street every Saturday, but my Saturday shifts are few and far between, so I think I’ll be at Broadway Market more often for my Banh Mi fix.
Another Banh Mi operator is Pho Express, who operate out of a very small shop part way down Upper Street.

It’s a welcome sight, although I was sad the Brasilian shop had to close for me to get my fill of Banh Mi’s and Café Sua Da.
To be honest though, the fillings in the baguettes are not that fantastic. The carrots and radish are just cut and not pickled. This is what separates Banh Mi 11 from its competitors.
The meat is ok, nice and tender, fairly well cooked, but somehow I think this is as close to a Prêt Banh Mi as I will ever get. I hope.
I like Banh Mi Bay, not only for its good mix of different Vietnamese dishes in a nice friendly setting, but the food is pretty damn good as well.
The Banh Mi’s are not brilliant either. Although they do have more of an array of fillings than most places, and the cold pork roll is really good. One of my favourites, but it’s the lack of pickled veg that really disappoints.
It doesn’t take that much effort to do this, and the rewards would be magnified immensely.

But the other food on their menu is very good. I am a particularly obsessed with their noodle salads, which are light, fresh and full of flavour.
I haven’t tried their steamed rice dishes but they look they part. The Pho Ga is also very good. I actually prefer the chicken soup than the beef one here. It’s lighter than most, and has a good chicken flavour.
As you can see I haven’t really searched out London for the best, mainly because I have told myself that Banh Mi 11 are the best and there is no need to continue looking, plus my waistline is seriously expanding and needs to shrink quite a lot. So no more Banh Mi for me for a while. 

Banh Mi Bay on Urbanspoon Bánhmì11 on Urbanspoon Pho Express on Urbanspoon


Mr Noodles said...

Nice round-up, but I can't believe you forgot to mention the banh mi at EAT and Pret! ;-)

Mzungu said...

Mr N - Sadly my taste buds are not worthy of sampling the wondrous delights of the totally authentic Banh Mi's of EAT and Pret.
Have you tried the Keu yet on Old Street. It's run by the Viet Grill, Cay Tre group ....?