The Chemistry of a Great Sandwich

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Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

Last week I read the latest edition of Made For Julie with a touch of smugness. It was a great read; a smart, funny piece about how bad food near the beach can be. "But in Southeast Asia," (went my inner monologue), "it's different. Great food is everywhere--you just need to know how to find it."

Two days later, I embarked on a surprise jaunt to Vietnam. The country is an exciting place to eat, and I hadn't been in years. Visions of crispy soft-shell crabs danced in my head. And so I went, intent on eating well, and sharing my adventures with you.

But things didn't go according to plan. Rain thundered down in Mui Ne, a small beach retreat that's a plodding five-hour drive from Saigon. A slate gray sea pounded against the cracked concrete buttress in front of our guesthouse that poses as beach. Motorbike travel, up and into the vibrant countryside, was impossible on the flooded roads (on which an endless parade of tour buses tooted their horns. It was also Vietnamese Liberation Day, a long weekend celebrating the end of the American War, and a hellish time to travel).

After an hour or more, my wife shot me a look that I've come to recognize, and grudgingly respect. The one that says, "Your aimless search for food is over, and now I will eat."

And so I took consolation in the promise of food. In that hopeful spirit I headed out with my wife into the rain, armed with an umbrella and a fist full of dong, in search of banh mi--the riotously good Vietnamese sandwich. A recent article in the New York Times had been kicking around in my memory, even though Eater, a blog about the New York food scene, says the craze has run its course. In New York banh mi might be, like, totally passé, but in Vietnam it's breakfast.

Unfortunately, on Mui Ne's beach road we mostly passed nightclubs with names like Hollywood and Night Club. We slopped though muck and danced around the muddy waves that sprayed from beneath buses. Desperate, we pondered eating at a place called Phat Burger. But it felt wrong for reasons orthographic and otherwise, and so we soldiered on.

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Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

After an hour or more, my wife shot me a look that I've come to recognize, and grudgingly respect. The one that says, "Your aimless search for food is over, and now I will eat." And so we sat in a corrugated seafood shack with chattering package tourists, as raindrops pounded the roof and tinny pop music echoed within. It was a gooey meal I'd rather forget (right after I show you this picture of it):

More misery followed in meals ahead. Like fish grilled in a sweet, garlicky margarine. Burnt prawns bathed in sticky tamarind jam. A green mango salad made with overripe, yellow fruit. The highlight of my three-day beach vacation in Vietnam itself was a gesture of defeat: A pizza, with spicy salami, at an Italian restaurant.

But I don't give up so easily. And so on our final night, in the residential town of Phan Thiet (which is a center for fisheries, and also fish sauce production), I grabbed an umbrella and set out one last time. The rain fell hard and the river, bobbing with turquoise fishing boats, looked like a drink poured rudely to the rim. In the downpour we came across a mother, her two daughters, and the kind of homemade, heartfelt Vietnamese sandwich I'd been dreaming about.

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Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

The youngest lightly toasted airy baguettes over a charcoal fire, as elder sister sliced them open and spread the bun with a chunky, homemade pate. Mom's chopsticks then raced from one condiment to the next: a pinch of coriander and spring onions; a scattering of pickled carrots and crisp daikon radish; pepper-dusted slices of hard-boiled eggs; crunchy slices of pig ear; fruity, fiery yellow chilies and finally a splash of the fish sauce the town is famed for.

Arriving back at the hotel, I unwrapped my prize. The sandwich was held together with a final, touching flourish: It was wrapped in a sheaf of the daughter's chemistry homework.

That banh mi's own unique chemistry of herb and spice and liver and crunch was good that it almost exorcised the demons of beach cuisine.