I had read so much hype about Saigon Sandwich in San Francisco on chowhound, so when I woke up too late to make it to the judo tournament on Sunday, I decided it was a good day to go on a epicurean adventure in San Francisco. It was a gorgeous sunny day without a single cloud in the vast blue sky, so a picnic in the park with some ba'nh mi` (to be abbreviated from here on as 'banh mi') seemed like a perfect way to spend the day, especially since my two little sisters (8 & 5 yrs old) were with me for the weekend. Banh mi is the Vietnamese specialty from the South, and it is one of the best 'fusion' dishes I have ever had. It is undeniably French, yet unarguably Vietnamese. The two cultures have come together in perfect unison to produce this treasure of a sandwich.
Banh mi is created on French baguette bread with pickled carrots (and sometimes daikon), cilantro, hot peppers, and a Vietnamese version of 'mayonaise'. This mayo is tricky - it tastes much more like melting pork lard than it does mayonaise, with no hint of sourness and that gliding sensation of fat. The meat inside is your choosing, and it can range from grilled pork with fish-sauce-marinade, fried fish cakes, and other very Asian center pieces, or more traditional French-influenced trimmings of ham and pate. Saigon sandwich has a bare-bones menu of chicken, pork, meat ball, pork cake, pate, and various combinations of these ingredients. Their baguettes are humongous, and their pickles consist only of carrots. We got two roast porks for the little ones, pate for my roommate, aka Papa Bear, and the pork, pork cake, pate combo for me. The fifth one was the ham, pork cake, and pate combo to fill any void in any of the 2 + 2*0.5 people. My roommate is astonishingly similar to my mother, who buys everything in tremendous excess when it comes to food - if you ever make the mistake of saying you like something, you will be presented with enough of that food to make you no longer want another bite of it... Maybe it's something about being an Asian parent...
We drove around for what seemed like forever, looking for a parking space in the Golden Gate Park, and all the while, all I could think about was the all the reviews I had read on chowhound - how Saigon Sandwich is really the best, and if you come to San Francisco, you've got to try one of these... We parked the car and plopped ourselves on the closest greenery to begin digging into the sandwiches. My first thought upon grabbing one of the five we had in our bags was - wow, they are still really hot after a 20 min drive!!!
I sank my teeth into the baguette, expecting a solid crunch and an explosion of flavors. Instead, my teeth easily slid through the bread, with juicy marinade dribbling out of the layers. I had a good-size bit, but all I tasted was the pork and none of the pickled veggies. Yes, the pork was wonderful, but there was no unison, no chorus, no symphony... I chomp, chomp, chomped, and chomped. The deeper I got into the endeavor, the more flavors started to come rushing together as the roast pork oozed itself onto the other players, the pickles and the cilantro came together towards a crescendo with the pate, and the mayonaise worked effortlessly, yet perfectly, to blend all the flavors in perfect sync. The bread was a silent stage for the music, and kept out of sight for the most part. I literally inhaled the sandwich when all this came together.
Luckily, I had another sandwich to munch on (so, yes, maybe parents do know best...), this time with ham instead of the pork. The pate is what us Japanese call 'liver paste', and it had a very strong liver smell to it. I think I like the idea of pate more than I like the taste of it. I liked the strength of flavor in the roast pork best out of all the goodies inside this second combo sandwich. This one didn't do it for me. In the absence of the roast pork to command center stage, the sandwich just didn't have the 'umph'. Being that it was my second sandwich, I also didn't quite have the same voracious appetite (so, no, parents don't always know what's best and do buy in excess...), so this one didn't get much more of my attention. Don't worry, it found itself in a happy place when the Papa Bear got to it, even though he turned a somewhat strange greenish blue by the end.
Overall, I think Saigon sandwich has a very nice pork marinade, but because of that, the pork is a lot juicer than what I've come to expect. The juices make the bread soggier than the crunchy versions I've had in the South Bay. The baguette is huge enough to accommodate this, but it does lose its crunch. The pickles and mayonaise complement the pork extremely well, and the price is definitely right for the yummy treat of a sandwich this is. I wonder why anyone would go for an American chain hot sandwich, which costs over 3 times as much for the same amount of food, over these Vietnamese sandwiches is a small mystery to me. But is this really the best of the best in San Francisco? I'll have to taste around for other options, because so far, my banh mi champion is still Huong Lan in Milpitas - their fish cake banh mi takes my breath away just thinking about it.
After our lunch, I started a 'how many cartwheels can you do in a row' competition to take advantage of the beautiful lawn space we had, and I am proud to report that I am the reigning Senior division champion with 12 cartwheels in a row...