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Banh mi? There is no sub.

Sandwich is more than a Vietnamese hoagie

Banh mi with shredded pork from New Saigon Sandwich in Chinatown Banh mi with shredded pork from New Saigon Sandwich in Chinatown (wiqan ang for the boston globe)
By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / February 27, 2008

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Like all Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, the curried chicken version at New Saigon Sandwich in Chinatown is crackly-crunchy, sweet, spicy, sour, salty, and luscious all at the same time. And like all banh mi shops, this spot is not much more than a hole in the wall, a mom and pop operation with only the essentials.

Banh mi is the great fusion of French baguette and Vietnamese tastes. It begins with a crusty roll, which is brushed with mayonnaise and stuffed with meat and pickled vegetables. It dates to the 19th century, when French colonialism introduced local cooks to the baguette and perhaps also to mayonnaise. In Boston there are about a dozen banh mi shops, some that excel at this popular sandwich, all better than any West ern-style hoagie you put it up against. And all under $3.

New Saigon is small and crowded. The banh mi roll looks like an undistinguished supermarket baguette, a side split bun, something straight out of the toaster at Quiznos. It's slathered with sweet, slightly garlicky mayonnaise and stuffed with your choice of fillings, which include Vietnamese ham, head cheese and pate, shredded pork, curry chicken, tofu. Then it's topped with matchsticks of pickled carrot and daikon, whole sprigs of fresh cilantro, and cucumber spears. If you say you want it spicy, you won't be disappointed. You'll get thinly sliced jalapenos or small red bird chilies with the seeds intact. After a drizzle of fish sauce or soy sauce, the cook slips the sandwich into a small paper bag, then into a larger paper bag. All yours, amazingly, for about the price of a hot dog.

There are five other places that make banh mi that are as good. Pho Viet's, in the 88 Food Connection food court of the Super 88 market in Allston, is one. The parking lot is free (a plus). Order, sit down in the huge sunny dining room surrounded by fluorescent pastels and potted palms, and watch television while you eat. It's the rare place with both pho (see related story) and banh mi.

Chau Bakery on Dorchester Avenue bakes its own bread and has the best pork pate. Ba Le Fields Corner, also in Dorchester, has the friendliest service and in the back of the restaurant, a sugar cane grinder for fresh sugar cane juice. Back in Chinatown, 163 Vietnamese Sandwiches & Bubble Tea makes a vegetarian tofu banh mi and Lu's Sandwich Shop in the back of the Thai Binh Jewelry Store (lots of jade) is the tiniest spot of all, the sandwiches warmed in a toaster and doled out by a grandmother.

At home, an authentic tasting banh mi is surprisingly accessible, as easy as a trip to the closest supermarket. Start with a baguette, slice it in half lengthwise, hollow out some of the bread, and brush both halves with mayonnaise. For the meat, almost anything will work - leftover brisket or roast turkey, grilled pork or chicken, marinated tofu.

Luckily for those with or without head cheese on hand, the essence of the sandwich is not the meat, but in the garnishes: whole cilantro sprigs and pickles. All you really have to do is slice carrots and daikon radishes and soak them in vinegar and sugar.

You're at home, so load up on the vegetables, drizzle the filling with soy sauce or fish sauce, and then ask yourself: Do you like it spicy?