Cuisine: Vietnamese, Sandwich
Binh Van Dan Street/Ong Lanh Bridge
District 4, Ho Chi Minh City
Banh Mi Thit Nuong (5,000 VND)
The Astronomer: One of the best parts about living in Vietnam is the opportunity to build relationships with small restaurant owners and street vendors through repeated visits to their establishments. In my case, these relationships tend to be rather superficial due to my limited language skills—usually restricted to an exchange of knowing smiles and a well-placed “Rat Ngon!“—but nevertheless they are quite satisfying.
I recently made a new friend on the drive to work: a man selling banh mi thit nuong from a cart that he pushes daily over Ong Lanh Bridge between District 4 and District 1. I’m a big fan of banh mi—the classic Vietnamese baguette sandwich with meat, pate, fish, or egg—and an even bigger fan of thit nuong, but until recently I had not been lucky enough to enjoy the two combined into a single treat. It turns out banh mi thit nuong is eaten almost exclusively in the morning, and due to my Western prejudices, I’ve been clinging stubbornly to cereal as the breakfast food of choice. However, I think I’m coming around.
Banh mi thit nuong vendors typically carry a small grill directly on their cart and cook up fresh pork slabs throughout the morning. My man cooks the meat in small pieces on skewers—bite-sized tidbits that are perfect for a sandwich. He expertly slices open a baguette with scissors (this rivals the ubiquitous rubber band magic for the most impressive feat I’ve seen from a street vendor), loads in the thit nuong off one skewer, adds a bit of bi (a mixture of pork and pork skin) and a generous helping of scallion oil and do chua (pickled vegetables), and tops it all off with a dousing of nuoc mam.
It really doesn’t get any better than this. Thit nuong with nuoc mam is, in my opinion, one of the greatest partnerships ever devised in the culinary world. After my initial discovery of this vendor, I started a banh mi thit nuong eating streak lasting at least 6 or 7 business days. Every morning we pull up behind him as he walks toward District 1; I say “chao anh!” and he turns around with a smile. With The Gastronomer’s help, I have learned that he has one child and sells approximately 50 sandwiches per morning. Sometimes we pass him before he has started his walk, so we now also know where he lives. This bodes well for my future breakfast prospects.
The Gastronomer has so far passed on this terrific opportunity to enjoy thit nuong on the way to work, preferring to stick with her old fibrous standbys from Trader Joes and Maximark. In this respect, at least, I may be more Vietnamese than she is. I’ll admit that grilled meat in the morning still feels a little strange, but I can’t deny that it’s delicious. Why limit yourself to only two truly exciting meals per day?