The most fundamental rule in building a classic sandwich is to use the proper bread. A BLT’s toast should be as crispy as the bacon it cradles; the earthy, slightly sour taste of chewy rye is chosen to tame a Reuben’s juicy corned beef, zingy sauerkraut, and creamy Russian dressing. The same especially applies to crafting a traditional Vietnamese banh mi. The term itself means “bread,” but customarily refers to the delicately crusted, torpedo-shaped roll that we now know as the foundation of a banh mi sandwich. To substitute a fluffy hot dog bun or a dense French baguette in its place would destroy a banh mi’s very essence.
Take a bite into a banh mi and you’ll ignite a mouthful of opposing sensations: The crunch of the thin, shiny crust followed by the give of the roll’s airy interior. The cold cilantro sprigs and carrots, crisp against warm, rich, shredded pork. The sour spice from pickled daikon and raw jalapeno slices mellowed by a creamy smear of mayonnaise. And finally, the sweet tang of the glaze coating the pork. At Rebecca Jean Catering, this glaze is a “green salt rub” made from ground cilantro stems, chilies, sugar, and salt. “We slow-roast [the glazed pork in the oven] uncovered to render a lot of the fat,” explains production chef Leigh. “The sugar [in the glaze] caramelizes and it looks really pretty.”
When chef Leigh isn’t cooking her own banh mi, she gets her fix from the nationally acclaimed and “local fooderati” favorite, Saigon Sandwich. A staple of the two-block strip of the Tenderloin dubbed “Little Saigon” to commemorate the surrounding Vietnamese community, the tiny hole-in-the-wall produces an onslaught of foot-long banh mis stuffed with pork, pate or tofu for seriously next-to-nothing prices. “It’s the perfect lunch,” says Leigh, who says the restaurant’s quirks keep drawing her back. “The sandwich is great. They have a brown secret sauce on there that makes it better than the other ones. And there’s a whole system you need to know when you go in to order…There’s kind of an insider-ness to the place.”