On the side streets of Nha Trang, a coastal city in southern Vietnam, aluminum-and-glass sandwich carts start rolling on to the narrow sidewalks late in the afternoon.
One shelf behind the glass is crammed with baguettes, a culinary legacy of almost a century of French rule in southeast Asia. The other shelves are piled with condiments, produce and all manner of Vietnamese cold cuts -- the fillings for the famous submarine sandwiches known as bánh mì.
In Vietnam, a good bánh mì might set you back the equivalent of 50 or 75 cents. In Canada, a close approximation can be found in most cities for less than $3.
But don't be fooled by the humble price or be put off by the ubiquity of subs in general. The bánh mì is one of the world's most special sandwiches -- a meal-to-go that combines vivid flavours with a surprising contrast of textures, the latter being more of a challenge to the standard North American palate.
The bánh mì starts with a French-style baguette, soft on the inside and crusty on the outside. It's then filled with a smear, butter, mayo and a soft Vietnamese pork pâté some aficionados lovingly call mystery meat.
In Vietnam, even more mystery meat follows: Slices of a pork sausage loaf that vaguely resembles kubasa. Slices of something chewier that appears to be cured pork belly but has the gelatinous texture of headcheese. More familiar cold cuts such as ham and char siu, the latter better known as Chinese barbecued pork tenderloin. And if you're lucky, grilled patties or steamed meatballs made of ground pork and lemongrass.
Along with the meat (and more meat) come slices of cucumber, a picked salad of julienned carrots and daikon radish, sprigs of parsley and finely chopped hot chili peppers. Depending where you are in Vietnam, the cart operator may squirt the entire works with soy sauce or the German soy substitute known as Maggi sauce.
What you wind up with is a sandwich that is crusty, soft, chewy and crunchy all at once -- and savoury, spicy and bright at the same time.
"What makes it work is the melding of the flavours -- the fresh cilantro, the pickles, the mayo and the meat. Everything together," says Johnny Kien, the owner of Saigon Jon's Vietnamese Kitchen, a Fort Richmond restaurant that tailors traditional Vietnamese street foods to western palates.
Kien's restaurant, which recently celebrated its first year in business, doesn't serve traditional bánh mì. But all his subs strive to show off the balance of flavours and textures that can make the bánh mì an addictive habit.
Given Winnipeg's large Vietnamese community, bánh mì aren't hard to find. Before you try one though, Kien offers some advice: Only order yours toasted if you're eating it immediately.
"Don't get it toasted if it's takeout. The bread gets too hard," he says. To the Vietnamese palate, texture is everything.
Here are some of the Winnipeg most notable Vietnamese subs -- in a range of settings, from traditional to modern:
THE Bánh Mì SPECIALIST
542 Dufferin Ave.
The setting: About eight months ago, Vietnamese expat Trinh Lé opened up Winnipeg's most traditional bánh mì shop on the same stretch of Dufferin Avenue that sports Black Pearl Coffee, Gimli Fish and Mariner Neptune. One step inside and you'll find the same array of ingredients as you would on a side street in Nha Trang. Some customers come in for western subs, but that would be missing the point.
Price tag: $2.88 for a traditional Vietnamese assorted sub or $2.50 for the meatball version. Shredded chicken and fried fish are also available.
THE BUTCHER SHOP AND GROCER
Fong Yinh Trading Ltd.
19 McPhillips St.
The setting: Once you step into Fong Yinh, walk past the long, glass butcher display case, filled with the likes of oxtail -- the chief ingredient for pho, the Vietnamese breakfast dish of beef soup with rice noodles -- and beautifully fresh-looking cuts of offal. Walk to the back, where a few pre-made bánh mì are stacked up next to a glassed-in steam table full takeout buffet-combo fare. If you want a toasted version, ask the staffer -- who may be hidden behind the buffet stand -- to make you one fresh.
Price tag: $2.75 for a Vietnamese assorted sub.
THE VIETNAMESE QUICK-SERVE CHAIN
519 Sargent Ave., 1941 Pembina Hwy. and 1440 McPhillips St.
The setting: The original Asia City on Sargent Avenue was Winnipeg's first Vietnamese fast-food emporium, a place where you can grab a bánh mì, an entire com -- a plate of steamed rice, raw veggies and grilled meat -- or a fresh-made bubble tea, the latter a Taiwanese invention. Asia City has since expanded to three locations, including sit-down restaurants in Fort Garry and Garden City. This may be the place to try a Vietnamese meatball bánh mì; the firm ones grilled on skewers are great, but the soft braised ones are even better, although often unavailable.
Price tag: $2.75 for a Vietnamese assorted sub or $3.50 for Chinese barbecued pork or Vietnamese barbecued meatball.
THE WESTERN-FRIENDLY VERSION
Saigon Jon's Vietnamese Kitchen
2696 Pembina Hwy.
The setting: Described by owner Johnny Kien as a restaurant catering to people beginning to explore Vietnamese cuisine, Saigon Jon's offers a stylized and upmarket version of the bánh mì. Kien says he uses all-natural beef, free-range chicken and open-pasture pork, which should attract meat eaters who are concerned about animal welfare. Vegetarians can order the tofu instead.
Price tag: $6.49 for a "half-size" sirloin, chicken, pork, meatball or tofu sub. The full-size will set you back $10.89.