My first date with my now fiancé was at a local Vietnamese restaurant. Laid back, BYOB, and gourmet or simple depending on your mood, it's still one of our favorite places. We usually order rice vermicelli bowls because they're one of the cheapest entrees.
The dish, in Vietnamese, is bún thịt nướng, and consists of grilled meat and rice vermicelli noodles over a bed of greens and bean sprouts. The bowl can be topped with chopped egg rolls, spring onions, and peanuts, and is served with a side of nước chấm, a basic term for a thin dipping sauce that often includes vinegar, fish sauce, and sugar. The dish bursts with flavor, primarily because Vietnamese cuisine often attempts a balance among five "spices" (spicy, sour, bitter, salty, sweet) and five colors (white, green, yellow, red, black) which correspond to the five elements. The grilled meat is salty and rich, the greens and bean sprouts are fresh and crunchy, and the sauce is tangy and sweet.
Other Vietnamese specialties include phở, a dish similar to rice vermicelli bowls, but in soup form, and, the actual subject of this post, bánh mì. The bánh mì is the delicious result of French colonialism in southeast Asia; the French brought baguettes, mayonnaise, and pâté, and someone combined them with traditional Vietnamese ingredients like the ones described above. This new creation, a hearty sandwich filled with cold cuts or roasted meat, cilantro, peppers, pickled carrots, fish sauce, and even noodles, has become one of the most globally marketable Vietnamese dishes because of its ease of preparation and consumption.
You can watch Anthony Bourdain sample one of these authentic Vietnamese hoagies here, and this article explains how the sandwich is quickly taking over the once mighty panini's fifteen minutes of fame. Europe is so last decade: bring on Asia!
A new Vietnamese cafe recently opened within walking distance of my fiancé's apartment. This shop, owned by the same family as the first restaurant, concentrates on easier, takeout Vietnamese fare: phở, bánh mìs, noodle bowls, egg rolls, and the ever confusing bubble tea. On our first visit, which won't be our last, we ordered jicama rolls, bún thịt nướng (noodle bowl) and a pork bánh mì. The rolls were served with a rich peanut sauce, and we added sriracha and hoisin sauces to our entrees. The service was a bit slow because the shop is still new, and they've decorated their walls with chintzy LED light strings, but I loved the new venture into Vietnamese cuisine. Need more bánh mì!