How the Vietnamese banh mi became New Orleans' 'other' sandwich

Photo via Flickr/Sodanie Chea,

How the Vietnamese banh mi became New Orleans' 'other' sandwich

Food

How the Vietnamese banh mi became New Orleans' 'other' sandwich

In most other cities in the world, the incredible local popularity of the banh mi would rightfully earn it the distinction of being called the city’s official sandwich. But in jazz-drenched New Orleans, where hundreds of restaurants serve up their take on crusty po’ boys topped with everything from fried shrimp to roast beef, and some of the oldest sandwich shops in the nation continue to stuff round muffaletta rolls with mortadella, cured meats and olive salad each day, the banh mi is forced to settle for the bronze.

But unlike the homegrown history of the po’ boy, the banh mi was imported to New Orleans from Vietnam pretty much fully formed. Here’s how the Crescent City’s rich French heritage and proximity to swampy wetlands provided fertile ground for a Vietnamese staple to make itself right at home in the American South.

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Big eats at Dong Phuong. | East New Orleans.

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Before we jump into it, let’s get those who are perhaps unfamiliar with the banh mi up to speed. The term banh mi is Vietnamese for baguette, or bread. The term also refers to the popular sandwich that is served upon the particular baguette. While regional or familial variations surely occur, a traditional banh mi is usually stuffed with with some combination of a fatty pate smeared across one piece of bread, mayonnaise on the other, pickled vegetables like daikon radish and carrots, cilantro, fresh jalapeño and cucumber slivers, and a protein like cha lua (a pork sausage), chicken thighs or pork belly. A bite into a banh mi made fresh to order is at once crunchy, creamy, warm, spicy, cool, tart, and meaty. It’s a perfectly balanced dish, which accounts for its consistency and longevity. But I digress.

The banh mi was first dreamt up among street food vendors in Saigon in the mid 1900s. Banh mi bread had been present in Vietnamese culture for almost 100 years already, owing to the French colonization and occupation of French Indochina, but it wasn’t until the perfect alchemy of readily available ingredients were combined that the banh mi became the lasting sensation it is today.

Like so many other culinary trends, it was ultimately war that helped the banh mi to travel beyond the borders of Vietnam, following Western soldiers back to France and the United States, their newfound appetite for Vietnamese food packed up right alongside their uniforms and weapons. But while American soldiers may have carried their hankering for a spicy Vietnamese sandwich back home to Columbus, Albany, and San Antonio, these men weren’t the primary driver of banh mi interest down in New Orleans.

Following the Liberation of Saigon in 1975, hundreds of Vietnamese families fled the newly reunified country, traveling alongside U.S. military forces all the way to the United States, eventually settling in two neighborhoods on the edges of the New Orleans city limits. But why did so many Vietnamese families opt to live in New Orleans East and Marrero, on the city’s Westbank? Climate, topography and culture were each enticing features about Louisiana.

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~ CHAR SIU BUN Hong Kong style honey BBQ pork • pickled salad • soft bun • spring onions 📍@mrcrackles📍 . I’ve been meaning to try this place out for while, but they’re just a little too far from the office. I heard the Char Siu is one of the better options, so I stuck to that. I can see why the pork is rated so well! It’s glossy, sticky, and perfectly sweet and smoky thanks to the honey BBQ glaze 🤤 The rest of the roll is filled with a nice amount of pickled and raw vegetables. Pickled carrots, slices of cucumber, onions, and some coriander for freshness! There was also a green sauce used which I think may have been something coriander based? Either way it worked well! Presentation wise this is perfect. Practicality wise not so much 😂 The pork is all stacked on top and you can’t really push it down, so you have to be careful you don’t lose any pork when you bite in to it. But other than that, this was a pretty good feed!

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In humid, hot, sun-drenched New Orleans, Vietnamese immigrants found weather that largely felt like home. And the city’s proximity to wetlands, Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico reminded many people of their hometowns back in Vietnam, where rivers, canals and other bodies of water were tangled up alongside the land. And after six decades of occupation by French colonists, multiple generations of Vietnamese had had much of their lives interwoven with the French language, cuisine, and culture – something French-founded New Orleans also offered up in spades.

But chief among the factors pulling what would eventually amount to thousands of people from Vietnam all the way across the Pacific to New Orleans were the central organizations logistically facilitating the move – namely, a number of Catholic charities. Under French rule, missionaries had long since covered Vietnam in churches, converting thousands of Vietnamese to Catholicism. So it should hardly be surprising that these same Catholic ministries predominantly sent those fleeing the country to a region where they had built up an extensive network of religious infrastructure, capable of absorbing thousands of new immigrants into the community.

To this day, New Orleans East and the Westbank are home to thriving Vietnamese communities. The Dong Phong bakery in New Orleans East provides literally hundreds of restaurants across the city with bread for both banh mi and po’ boys, earning recognition from the James Beard Foundation along the way. And while Gretna’s Hong Kong Food Market may not cater strictly to Vietnamese customers, the sandwich line tucked behind the stacks and pallets of Asian bottled and canned drinks is where many a New Orleans restaurateur or kitchen manager gets their weekly banh mi fix, grabbing a sandwich to scarf down in the car on the way back across the Crescent City Connection high above the Mississippi River.

When much of the state was forced to evacuate their homes for an extended period following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Vietnamese community in the Versaille neighborhood of New Orleans East were among the first to return to the city, and get down to the arduous task of rebuilding their entire world. The dependable presence of the Vietnamese community in New Orleans post-Katrina – and the Vietnamese restaurants that came with them – led to a welcome spike in culinary influence, with Vietnamese dishes like pho (noodle soup), bao (meat-stuffed pillowy buns) and green papaya salad all appearing on menus across the city.

But no dish has exploded in popularity quite in the way that the banh mi has in post-Katrina New Orleans. Dozens of beloved neighborhood restaurants and destination dining haunts alike have gotten into the banh mi game, sometimes assisting intimidated diners along by calling the sandwich – you guessed it – a Vietnamese po’ boy. The sandwich might not yet be singularly synonymous with the city in the way that the po’ boy or muffaletta are, but once you’ve tasted one of these bad boys for yourself, you understand that it’s really just a matter of time.

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