I've been watching a new show on the Food Network lately called "The Great Food Truck Race." Each week, the food truck competitors travel to a different U.S. city, with an empty pantry and three (generally emotionally unstable) people to man the truck, and try to sell as much food as possible in two days using the uniform budget given them by the show. The team with the lowest profit is eliminated. So far, Nom Nom the banh mi truck from L.A. has been annihilating the competition. Last Sunday in Santa Fe they had almost double the profit of the next-best team, and didn't even bother to create a new menu item in order to compete with the others for immunity--they really didn't have to. This, in a city with an Asian population of only 1.3% (according to the 2000 Census).
Anyone who's ever had a good banh mi finds these results completely unsurprising. Banh mi are, quite simply, phenomenal. For the uninitiated, a banh mi is a Vietnamese sandwich consisting of: a 6-8 inch piece of fresh baguette (true Vietnamese versions use shorter baguettes made with rice flour for added fluffiness), split lengthwise and spread with paté or mayo, then topped with a modest portion of warm sliced meat, sliced jalapenos, and--the pièce de résistance, a color, flavor & textural wonderland of tangy julienned veggies (usually carrot and daikon, sometimes cucumbers) and fresh cilantro.
My favorite type is the 5-spice chicken banh mi, and I seize every opportunity/excuse to make it when I'm cooking for more than a few people. It's easy because you can do 99% of the prep ahead of time, and just grill and slice the meat when it's time to eat. Also because the leftovers (if any) can all be thrown together into one container for consumption in salad form the next day.
Watching Nom Nom kick some food truck ass inspired me to make my banh mi for some Napa friends at a dinner this week. Eating the banh mi at said dinner inspired me to post the recipe here so that others may delight in it as well.
I like to serve this with a Vietnamese cabbage salad and NZ sauvignon blanc, but do what you want. New world pinot noir also works well, particularly if it has a sweet spice character to it. I also once had an awesome dinner party where every guest brought a different bottle of bubbly to pair with the sandwich, and there wasn't a bad match to be found. This is truly one of my all-time favorite staple recipes for barbecue season, and I haven't yet found someone who doesn't love it.
5-Spice Chicken Banh Mi
(serves 4-6, depending on gluttony levels)
2 French baguettes with light, fluffy texture
1/2 cup mayonnaise (or more if you want)
1 T 5-spice powder
Combine mayo and 5-spice powder, and refrigerate until ready to use. If you want to thin the mayo out and make it a bit less rich, add the juice from 1/2 lime and stir it in before serving.
Cut baguettes into even lengths--I like to cut each one into 6 pieces if possible so you can eat a greater number of sandwiches and feel more decadent. Split each piece lengthwise and toast.
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 T fish sauce (nuoc mam)
1.5 T sugar
6 cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 T five spice powder
8 boneless skinless chicken thighs (or 4 thighs and 2 breasts)
Combine the first five ingredients in a small mixing bowl and whisk to combine. Put the chicken in a solid ziploc bag and pour the marinade over, making sure it coats all the pieces thoroughly. Refrigerate 2-10 hours, whatever is convenient. Leaving it in longer makes the soy sauce flavor more pronounced, which may be too much if you're using all thighs--their greater relative surface area makes them more sensitive to marinade flavors than thicker pieces like breasts.
When you're ready to serve, take the chicken out of the marinade and barbecue over medium high heat. Let it rest a few minutes after cooking, then slice them into thin, 1/8 inch slices and serve warm.
1.5 cups julienned carrots (I buy the pre-julienned bag from Trader Joe's)
1/2 peeled seeded cucumber, julienned
some julienned daikon radish if you want--I usually skip it
2 T sugar
3T rice wine vinegar
Combine all ingredients, mix well, and refrigerate until ready to serve. Drain off liquid before serving.
The Finishing Touches
1-3 (depending on your heat tolerance) fresh jalapeno peppers, sliced thinly
1 bunch of fresh cilantro sprigs (about 5 sprigs per sandwich is a good estimate)
Construction and Demolition
Letting everyone build their own sandwich avoids problems of including too much/too little mayo or jalapeno, or having a cilantro hater reject dinner altogether (offer mint as an alternative to these people). Spread the 5-spice mayo generously on the toasted baguette, top and bottom. Layer the sliced meat on the bottom half, then add sliced jalapenos to taste, then a layer of the veggies, and finish with cilantro sprigs.
To preserve the roof of your mouth from brutal laceration (and to better appreciate the texture and punchiness of the sandwich fixins), hold the baguette with the smooth bottom side facing up as you eat it.