There's a drink in which large and small pieces of starchy, squiggly and stringy items, plus various fruit bits, share equal space with viscous liquid. I'm handed both a cup of crushed ice and a long plastic spoon on the side. I'm confused as hell by what's what, and by the crazy-ass flavor of sugared campfire smoke, but I'm captivated. Like, train-wreck captivated. But it's good. You should totally try it.
My friend Josh, who knows everything about Vietnamese food, had messaged me when he discovered Banh Mi Viet, open since January: "Place is completely legit," he'd said. "Sandwiches are exactly how they should be."
By that, he partially meant the house-baked baguettes are texturally spot-on, with a crisp jacket and a soft, elastic interior. After all, the French taught the Vietnamese how to bake them during their occupation. "We took the good from them," says co-owner and Army veteran Huy Phan, whose wife, Trang, and her dad do most of the cooking.
But it's the stuff inside the breads that really establishes BMV's authenticity: house-prepared pork variations with mindful marinating, slow-cooking and saucing. These aren't bloated American hoagies à la every sub shop. They're elegant, thinly packed sandwiches that Huy says were traditionally eaten at breakfast in Vietnam, though popularity has pushed them later into the day and around the world.
The sandwiches are simple. Five variations compose the menu: grilled pork, shredded pork, pork meatball, and two pork rolls, both with pâté, but one with ham and head cheese (face meats bound with gelatin) and the other with cured pork.
Don't think pork as in American-obsession- with-barbecue-and -all-things-bacon. This pork is more subtle and sliced thin, sharing the show with fresh garnishes. Each banh mi gets pickled daikon and carrot slivers, plus whole cilantro leaves, jalapeño coins and long, lanky cucumber wedges. There's crunch, tang and more than a touch of heat from the raw hot peppers.
I should probably tell you the best part now. Every sandwich is only $3.50. I'll probably never say this again in a food review, but this place should totally raise its prices.
The grilled pork, #2, emerges as our favorite of the five thanks to a piquant sauce that Huy likens to Korean fare because of a plum, soy, fish and hoisin sauce blend. It's brilliant. I could eat this banh mi daily. In a plane, on a train, I don't care, just give it to me.
The shredded pork, #4, challenges most with a toasted rice powder clinging to stringy tripe bits. The pork meatball, #5, pairs minced jicama with the pork to retain moisture and flavor, which abounds. The two pork rolls offer more complexity with their rich pâté spreads. The #1's head cheese shouldn't be pungent or scary to newcomers — so try it. The #3 incorporates 24-hour, five-spice-marinated belly meat, slow-cooked, for a fattier component.
You can't go wrong. Buy every one of them and you've still spent less than you would on a single entrée at many other spots. Take them to go with whatever mystery drink and dessert await you in the front cooler. Another beverage is bright pink with coconut cream and some fruit, tasting like bubblegum ice cream. One dessert has sweet rice, taro and what appears to be black-eyed peas.
A bit of a language barrier keeps me from understanding it all. But that's irrelevant when it comes to cherishing this place.