Dessert first, questions later
Last week was colder than a well digger's nether regions, and I was not at all inclined to leave the warmth under my stack of comforters. Still, I donned my thermal underwear and drove to the corner of Louisiana and Central, hoping like hell I’d find a good Vietnamese sandwich.
I walked into Lee’s Bakery, a nondescript building next to Café Trang, where I was greeted by toasty-warm air, heavy with the sweet smell of baked something-or-other. Linda, niece of owner Nga, became my good buddy for the next hour, magnanimously guiding me through the bakery's sandwiches, pastries and several cups of things that looked like art projects.
The layout of the store is minimalist--the only décor to speak of is diminutive cafeteria tables and chairs and plainly painted walls. Against one wall is an entire shelf of neatly packaged sticky rice desserts in all their Technicolor glory: pinks, greens, yellows, oranges. The same little pats and slices of gelatinous cake frequently excite and confuse me when I see them at the Talin Market next door. Linda told me that understanding traditional Vietnamese desserts boils down to coconuts and rice flour.
“Coconuts are everywhere" in Vietnam she said, "and they are inexpensive.” Many coconut-based sweets are enhanced with rice flour, which gives the cooked product a sticky, gelatinous consistency.
“Our desserts are sweet, but not too sweet,” she added.
I went on a gluttonous bender, trying everything I could, and I was damn glad I did. I had bánh bò nướng (literal translation: “cow cake,” $1.50 each), colored green by pandan leaves. I learned that pandan is an Asian tree fruit that resembles a porcupine on the outside and has fragrant sections of pulp like a pineapple on the inside.
The glass bakery case at the front contained a huge tray of warm, soft bánh tiêu—lightly fried, hollow cuts of sweet dough sprinkled with sesame seeds (50 cents each), which Linda insisted I sample while fresh. They were like beignets, crisp and chewy, with a hint of sweetness.
The pan next to them contained rows of bánh cam, rice flour pastry balls filled with sweet mung bean paste and coconut, rolled in sesame seeds and deep-fried (50 cents each). Linda said they were the most popular item in the bakery. After indulging in a couple, I understood why. The outside pastry ball was oil-crispy and slightly nutty because of the toasted seeds, and the inside filling was dense and sugary with coconut cream. They were positively luscious.
I needed some savory after all that sweet, and remembering what I had come for in the first place, I ordered a Vietnamese sandwich. The bánh mì dāc bịêt ($3.25) was packed with cucumber, pickled carrot and daikon radish, cilantro, thin-sliced jalapeños, butter, pâté, ham, pork and, oh yes, head cheese. Head cheese is a cold terrine of sorts, often served sliced and made from parts of meat that are usually rejected by Oscar Mayer. But when you put all this stuff on a baguette, it achieves a symbiotic balance you just can’t experience by eating a sloppy joe. Homemade butter (yep, it is) slathered on the bread made the whole sandwich so moist, and brought out the flavor of the rich, meaty pâté.
More savory fare was making its way into my mouth, most notably the bánh cuốn ($5.50). The dish of cold pork- and mushroom-filled dumplings, bean sprouts, fresh mint, chili sauce, fried onions and nuoc cham (chile-garlic fish sauce) supplied an intense mixture of umami flavors.
Ignoring the red "full capacity" alert my stomach was sending me, I continued to sample the bánh gio, a steamed rice cake filled with ground pork, black mushrooms and onion ($1.50 each), and the bánh bò, a lightly fried roll of house-made ham ($1.50 each). The gio was too starchy for my taste, but the ham roll was the perfect filler-upper for a girl on the go. The bánh bò's saltiness was complemented by an ice-cold can of herbaly chrysanthemum drink.
I should add that Linda was also awesome in that she tacitly ignored my futile attempts to pronounce everything. I left the aromatic warmth of the place fortified agianst the crappy weather. It was still colder than a witch’s boob, but I really did get the best Vietnamese sandwich in town.