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Build your own Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich

Addie Broyles
When all the elements come together, you have a bánh mì sandwich. It's the perfect bread; fresh greens; cool, creamy mayo; spicy chiles; bite of meat; and crunchy, tangy pickled veggies.

Subway has nothing on bánh mì.

There's a time and a place for a $5 footlong stuffed with cold cuts and shredded lettuce, but the bánh mì — a Vietnamese sandwich served on a baguette with pâté, mayonnaise, pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, cilantro, jalapeños and meat or tofu — packs a serious punch, often for less than $4 a sandwich, including tax.

Bánh mì (prounounced "BUN-mee") is the ultimate fusion food, a remnant of the French occupation of Vietnam in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when baguettes, pâté and mayonnaise entered Vietnamese cuisine. When the French lost control of the country in the mid-1950s, the sandwich remained and has become one of the most widely embraced Vietnamese dishes around the world.

Bánh mì are slightly less sloppy and fried than po' boys, but the distinction becomes less clear at places like Tam Deli in North Austin, one of a handful of excellent bánh mì shops along North Lamar Boulevard, where you'll find a deep fried shrimp bánh mì that could be mistaken for its Cajun cousin. Some restaurants, including the Baguette House just a little further up North Lamar in the Chinatown center, serve the vegetables on the side so that the bread wouldn't get soggy if you buy one to-go.

The name, which means "wheat cake" in Vietnamese, refers to both the bread and the sandwich, and it can be difficult to find just the right bread in a place like Austin, where there aren't many places specializing in Vietnamese baked goods. (Now, if you live in Houston, where the bánh mì culture rivals that of just about any city in the U.S., you wouldn't have any problem finding perfectly crisp bread for making your own bánh mì at home.)

In a number of big cities around the country, chefs are elevating bánh mì beyond its street-food roots, using more expensive ingredients and elaborate preparation. Most of the restaurants in Austin serve classic sandwiches, and Austin chef Larry McGuire of Perla's and Lamberts Downtown Barbecue says he plans to serve six or seven kinds of "pretty traditional" bánh mì at his newest restaurant, a Vietnamese place called Elizabeth Street Cafe in the old Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse location at Elizabeth and South First streets, which is slated to open late this year. "We'll put a little bit of a modern spin on it," he says, "but the big thing for us is we're going to bake baguettes in house."

Don't live near one of the bánh mì shops in Austin? If you think about the sandwich in elements — the bread, the pickle, the bite, the green, the meat, the sauce — you can create your own spin on one of Vietnam's signature exports.; 912-2504

The bread

The baguettes used to make bánh mì sandwiches usually contain both wheat and rice flours, which give the bread an even lighter texture and crispier crust than traditional baguettes. Tam Deli, T&N Cafe and Baguette House sell baguettes, but you might have to settle for whatever long crusty loaf your supermarket is selling. You can substitute croissants, hoagies or ciabatas, but one of the best alternatives to a baguette is a Mexican bolillo. Whatever bread you choose, tear some of the bread out of the middle to create a pocket for the ingredients and toast the bread until the outside is crispy. After all, the bread is merely a shell for what's inside.

The pickle

Almost all bánh mì sandwiches come with a light slaw of pickled carrots and daikon, a long white Asian radish found at specialty stores and Asian markets. It's easy to quickly pickle your own thinly sliced or julienned vegetables by letting them marinate for 15 minutes in a mixture of rice vinegar or white wine vinegar and a little salt and sugar. If you want to experiment, try using kimchi, the fermented Korean condiment, or a quick pickle with other vegetables such as radishes or beets.

The green

Bánh mì really isn't bánh mì without fresh cilantro and long, thin slices of cucumbers, the cool elements that make the sandwich taste so fresh. You can substitute or supplement the cilantro with other fragrant herbs and leafy greens such as Thai basil, Mexican tarragon, watercress, sorrel or even mint. For a cucumber alternate that still adds a cool crunch, you could use thinly sliced raw zucchini, squash or jicama.

The bite

Jalapeños give most bánh mì their bite, but you could just as easily turn to serranos or sriracha hot sauce for some kick. Want an even milder sandwich? Try thinly sliced green peppers.

The meat

The original Vietnamese baguette sandwich relied on spreadable meats like pâté, but now you're just as likely to find barbecue pork, ham, rotisserie chicken or meatballs on bánh mì. You can marinate thin slices of pork tenderloin or pork chops and then pan sear in a pan, but leftover grilled steak or pulled pork or chicken work just as well. Once you start using seafood, you start crossing into po' boy territory, but I doubt anyone eating a baguette loaded with fried shrimp or catfish and all the traditional bánh mì fixings would complain. Tofu marinated in soy sauce, garlic and ginger or tempeh can be used instead of meat.

The spread

Mayonnaise long ago replaced butter as the primary spread on bánh mì, but you don't have to stop there. You can use the slightly sweet Japanese Kewpie mayo, or doctor-up your own by whisking mayo with chile paste, hot sauce, minced herbs, cayenne pepper, lime juice or fish sauce. Chutney can add an element of sweet, too.

Where to find bánh mì in Austin:

Baguette House: 10901 N. Lamar Blvd., 837-9100

Tam Deli: 8222 N. Lamar Blvd Ste D33, 834-6458

T & N Cafe: 6705 W. Hwy 290, 899-9233

Lulu B's: 2113 S. Lamar Blvd., 921-4828

Pho Van: 8557 Research Blvd., 832-5595

Thanh Nhi: 9200 N Lamar Blvd., 834-1736

Bite Mi: 2002 Guadalupe St, Ste B

Me So Hungry: 1104 E. Sixth St.

Lily's Sandwich: 10901 N. Lamar Blvd., 973-9479