Is this the best Banh Mi?

Sing Sing banh mi, inside

Is this the best banh mi? From Sing Sing Sandwich Shop, San Francisco

After the event with Andrea Nguyen the other night, I sat down to read her book. She rightly describes banh mi as a synergy of bread, protein, vegetables and condiments which must be in the proper proportions. Synergy? When properly done, it’s more like a symphony. And just as some enjoy Beethoven, some John Williams, some John Cage I expect there is room to interpretation as to what that proper proportion should be.

I have never been to Vietnam, but that doesn’t disqualify me from judging an American banh mi any more than not eating a burrito in Mexico disqualifies me from judging a burrito. (And that was a misdirection since burritos are American, not Mexican; actually, I have eaten burritos in Mexico and they weren’t particularly memorable.) What I am looking for is the best representation of what we in the U.S. think of as a Vietnamese sandwich based on the choices and experiences we have here.

Sing Sing interior

Waiting for sandwiches at Sing Sing

We all know that Lee’s are okay for a chain but far better can be had. On the east coast, as a rule there’s dramatically less filling than in the U.S. west and south. That’s just wrong.* All drums and horns without the sweet violins and woodwinds in the middle. I want more filling, period. West coast style. The question is what that filling should be.

Andrea let me in on a secret which turns out not to be a secret at all: a hole in the wall in a divey section of San Francisco that many people judge the best banh mi. (She did not say that by the way, just that I should go there.) It’s Sing Sing Sandwiches, and it’s just over a block from the iconic Saigon Sandwiches shop.

Sing Sing banh mi, closed

Sing Sing banh mi, closed; note the strand of fancy pork with its casing

There was no line, a few guys waiting, and they asked you to take a seat while they made your sandwich. Totally nice people and winsome décor. Vietnamese music playing and a window counter which had originally been meant for eating, but their plants are doing so well they have been allowed to take over the people area. Outside the passing parade was as if, to quote one Yelp reviewer, many of the denizens had spent time in another place with the same name.

I brought it home to inspect it more closely.… would not have felt comfortable dissecting it in the presence of these gentle folk. It doesn’t look like much when you unwrap it, but when you split the halves there’s a visual explosion of variety. That’s because they hollow out the bun to get as much stuff as possible in there while preserving a trim profile.

Sing Sing dissected

Deconstructed: the bread has been scooped out to make room for the condiments

The stuff included pate, sliced fancy pork (but a less processed kind than that used at some places… note the strand of real casing hanging off the edge in the “closed’ photo), mayo, daikon, carrot, green onion, cucumber, jalapeno and cilantro. More ingredients than at Saigon and in better proportions.

The taste? A symphony indeed. Everything went together so smoothly I could barely discern individual ingredients and went more by texture: the crunch of daikon, the slippery smoothness of cucumber, the satisfying mouth feel of pate. And I pretty much forgot about the bread. It was minimally crackly but faded in importance because the filling was so spectacular.

Happy plants at Sing sing

Happy plants have taken over the window counter area

Is this the best banh mi? Is Snow’s the best smoked brisket? Does Burger House in Dallas make the best cheeseburger? Maybe something better is out there, but the chance of finding it is like tracking the elusive Higgs Boson. Why speculate when greatness is staring you in the face?

* A few days after writing this post, I was in Westminster’s Little Saigon and picked up a couple of sandwiches at one of the Banh Mi Che Cali locations. Long on bread, short on filling, just as I remember from previous visits. But the place was full of Vietnamese people who were very happy with their choices. One’s banh mi mileage can obviously vary. Lots of pate and extra spicy, pour moi!

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Banh Mi secrets from Andrea Nguyen

Andrea Nguyen and Sam Luu

Andrea Nguyen with Sam Luu, operations manager of Red Boat Fish Sauce which participated in the event

While in San Francisco I attended a launch party for The Banh Mi Handbook, the new book from Andrea Nguyen of Viet World Kitchen. This gave me the opportunity to ask her a couple of questions about bahn mi preparations which I’ve fretted about in previous posts.

First, the mayonnaise. She uses plain old mayo, preferably homemade, occasionally dressed up with some sriracha. She shakes her head at the folly of those who say it must be Kewpie, a Japanese product. And how do they get the mayo so delicious and sweet at my favorite place, Saigon Sandwich on Larkin? “They like to use sugar.”

More important, the bread. The recipe on the Viet World Kitchen website until recently was for a simple wheat loaf, with very well developed dough. This surprised me because I did not see how it could yield the shattering crust characteristic of a well made bahn mi loaf. I have added rice flour in my own experiments but Andrea said in Vietnam rice flour is used solely to counteract the high humidity.

The new formula in her book (learned from an old banh mi baker from Vietnam she encountered in a Chicago kitchen) calls for a little crushed Vitamin C as a dough conditioner, the addition of vital wheat gluten, and a very long proof so the bread is almost fully risen when you put it in the oven. This makes sense in theory because the very high gluten content would give the bread strength to hold its shape, instead of collapsing, when fully proofed. I will have to try this one.

The event was sponsored by the delightful Omnivore Bookstore which will ship you a signed copy if you call them at 415-282-4712. It’s also available on Amazon.

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Taste Test: Imperial White Chorizo

Imperial Chorizos

Hot and White chorizos from Imperial, sliced on the bias as they recommend

There was a LOT of Spanish-style chorizo at the Summer Fancy Food Show, but I especially wanted to taste the Imperial brand from Gloversville, NY. They’re introducing a “white” chorizo which was what Spaniards ate before the introduction of paprika from the New World. I tried this alongside their mild and hot chorizo, and also compared with other chorizos at the show.

The white chorizo, which is still made in small villages in the Extremadura region of Spain, has the dense texture and unctuous mouth feel of dry-cured pork sausage but a very mild favor, with a faint undercurrent which turns out to be nutmeg. I liked it but a taste comparison showed me why the Spanish sausage-makers so quickly adopted smoked paprika. The  pimentón not only aids in preservation but adds a rich earthiness, reminding me of the red peppers a vendor used to roast at the old farmer’s market in San Francisco, in a revolving perforated steel drum over a roaring gas fire.

Imperial is a division of Pata Negra, a large Spanish food company. They were attracted by Gloversville, formerly a manufacturing center for gloves tanned with Adirondack hemlock bark, because there was an existing infrastructure, very low real estate costs, and considerable business development support from New York State. (Fage yoghurt and a large feta cheese maker have settled nearby for the same reasons.)

Imperial Chorizo team

Imperial Chorizo team: general manager Ignacio Saez de Ibarra, sausage-maker Antomio Libran, and sales manager Tyrone Garcia

Antonio Libran, a veterinarian by training, has been experimenting with blends for seven years to achieve the current formula. It’s aged five weeks (considerably longer than some competitors) and is a product designed for discriminating eaters. The sausage comes from free range pigs and is ground by hand and dried at low temperatures, with minimal spices and no nitrates (other than a bit of celery juice in the hot chorizo). Ignacio Saez de Ibarra, general manager, tells me they believe in focusing on the paprika as opposed to some who take shortcuts which produce a more acid flavor which then must be masked with additional spices.

Indeed, there were two schools of chorizo makers at the show—purists like Imperial that spotlight the pimentón, and others who I think were not short cutting but preferred to treat chorizo as another version of high end charcuterie with the smoked paprika as a predominate flavor but not the only flavor. A good example of the latter is the chorizo from Charlito’s Cocina, a mail order product from Long Island.

Imperial hot and mild chorizo can be purchased from La Tienda, a well known Spanish food mail order source, as well as specialty markets in New York. The white version should be available soon.

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Confessions of a Wandering Glutton

Star King BBQ

My setup at Star King BBQ

When I travel on business I’m usually alone and my schedule consists of attending meetings all day, then writing up notes and acting on assignments at night. If I get wild and crazy, I might watch half an hour of television then fall asleep. Thus I devote an inordinate amount of attention to the one likely source of pleasure and adventure on the trip: the chance to eat something local and unique.

On a recent trip to see a client in downtown Los Angeles, Hotwire plopped me in the world’s seediest Ramada in Koreatown. Perfect: I’ll get some Korean barbecue. But with dozens of places within a couple of blocks, which to choose?

My first resource, always, is Yelp. Seasoned users know how to find the good reviews and then filter the information by recency (very old reviews might not reflect today’s conditions, even if they are very detailed and well written) and frequency (I wanted places with good sides, or panchan, so I did a search for that in the reviews of each restaurant). I discovered that the “better” places only serve very large and expensive entrees (i.e. the specific meat you want to cook) which is impractical for the solo diner. That narrowed it down to a few all you can eat establishments, which I corroborated with reviews on Eater and (found through Google search) L.A. Weekly.

I ended up at a very popular place (nearly 2000 reviews) called Hae Jang Chon. Unfortunately, I was turned away because the barbecue grill tables were for two or more. By now somewhat hungry and desperate, I remembered a place right across the street from the Ramada called Star King BBQ. I checked Yelp again. Only 94 reviews, but most were positive.

I had a pretty decent and well priced meal, which I reviewed on Yelp. (You’ll have to look it up if you are curious, for reasons explained below.) It was not until I got back to my hotel that I realized Guelaguetza, a Oaxacan mole place I’d been lusting after, was only a few blocks away. Ah well. Something for the next trip.

Update: turns out Yelp has so much business, they don’t want any links to their site. So you’ll have to go to Yelp and search if you want to see reviews of these places.

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More tidbits from the Summer 2014 Fancy Food Show

I had a nice taste test ready but need some ingredient confirmation from the producer… so we’ll mark time with a few “casuals” that didn’t make it into my previous post.

Georg Kao

George Kao, artisanal ramen chef

This guy wants to sell artisanal home ramen kits. What a great idea, since there’s a world of difference between the stuff you get in a top ramen house and in your packet of Shin Lamyan. He currently sells noodles to foodservice exclusively; I tasted his trial prep and it was delicious.

bonito for dashi

Dried fish for making ramen dashi, in the Japan pavilion

Rinse and recap. That’s the best practice I learned for recycling plastic containers in a seminar on sustainable packaging. If the bottle is dirty or still has liquid in it, the recycling center will discard it to avoid contaminating the recycling stream; a nice swirl with water and a bit of detergent is fine, no need to be obsessive. And if you don’t put the cap back on, it will get thrown away rather than recycled.

BBQ rub taster

Tasting dried rubs on chocolate squares

This exhibitor used squares of semisweet chocolate as the “platform” to compare various BBQ rubs. The flavor differences from one to the other come through very clearly and it’s a very enjoyable tasting experience.

The foodservice industry must index high in females. I say this because most of the men’s rooms in Javitz were converted to ladies’ rooms for the duration. Another theory: the management wanted to keep males from oversampling on the spirits and kombucha.

Temporary women's restroom

This used to be a men’s room

The difference between virgin and extra virgin olive oil is not what you think. I learned this in an olive oil seminar led by the dynamic Eryn Balch, the first food industry exec I’ve seen to attract groupies. It’s not a difference in processing; rather, EVOO has fewer “defects” as measured by the percentage of acid during testing.

Best tchotchke at the show: the Parmesan Frisbee. It’s served with chunks of Parmagiano Reggiano at 14, 24 and 36 months on a wheel to call out the differences; when you’re done you turn it over and sail it across the room. As a bonus, there’s no fear about getting it confiscated at the door (because of policies against taking food out).

Cheese Frisbee

The Parmesan Frisbee

Next up: a most unusual charcuterie taste test.

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Live from the floor at the Summer 2015 Fancy Food Show

World Cup distraction

The Germans seemed a little distracted during the World Cup, and not much business was done at their booth.

I go to the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco every year, but it’s been awhile since I made it to to the New York version. It’s a bit bigger and seems more chaotic, but maybe that’s because I’m used to the organization of the West Coast show.

Nueske's Cheddar Bacon Brats

Best product I tasted: Nueske’s Cheddar Bacon Brats

Best product I tasted at the show: Nueske’s bacon and cheddar cheese bratwurst. How to make a tasty brat even better? Put some bacon on it. Amazingly, it’s only 26 grams of fat which is not that much higher than a regular brat.

Pork Clouds

Pork Clouds (nee Fried Pork Rinds)

Best product name: Pork Clouds. That’s what we used to call chicarrones, or fried pork rinds.

Most overexposed product: Jamon Serrano. A few years ago this was a rare treat. Now, there are  enough displayed on magnificent carving stations to feed the world and half the pigs in Spain must be hobbling around on peg legs.

Serrano ham

Enough, already

Trending up: Jerky. It was everywhere, evenly divided between the candied/marinated variety that’s familiar at the snack counter and a new artisanal approach toward what SlantShack, one of my favorites, called “dried steak”.

Trending up: Peanut butter. Which has expanded to a new category which you might call “spreads” as in peanut butter (maybe with marshmallow fluff or white chocolate) designed to spread on a cookie.

Sriracha Hummus

Is the world ready for sriracha hummus?

Trending up: Sriracha. In everything. Including peanut butter.

Trending down: Gluten Free products. Of 2730 exhibitors at the show, only 425 categorized their products as “gluten free”. This in a nation when 49% of citizens say they have some form of gluten intolerance. I don’t have a comparable percentage of gluten free exhibitors last year but guarantee it was far higher. Celiac is a disease, but some feel that gluten intolerance is a fad and the food marketers seem to be betting it’s time to put it behind us.

Today’s the last day of the show. I have a couple of in-depth product reports that I’ll file in coming days.

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Thrill on the Grill

Plated Grilled Meal

The finished meal: asparagus, sweet potato, Vidalias, strip steak, all cooked on the grill, plus my son’s Kewpie and red pepper relish

The other day I cooked up a nice grilled dinner that was inspired by my recent Two Guys and a Grill class at Market Bistro. I was further stimulated by the chemistry of warm early summer weather and being able to cook without my wife complaining about clean-up.

Grill One

Phase One: Sweet Potatoes and Vidalia Onions

That second benefit is one of the secret reasons guys grill, I expect. And if you want to make a complete, no-mess meal rather than a couple of steaks to add to sides cooked in the kitchen, or tubs of potato salad and cole slaw from the deli, you can do that too. I followed Certified Angus Beef chef Michael Ollier’s strategy to divide my grill into zones, with varying heat, to handle both meat and vegetables as well as keeping cooked foods warm after I was done.

Grill Two

Phase Two: potatoes are done, asparagus added; firebox heating for the wood chips to go under the steak

I started with some sweet potato I sliced thin after peeling, then coated with some good olive oil and garam masala. Asparagus spears were next, marinated briefly in olive oil with a bit of lemon juice and herbes de provence. And some Vidalia onions which were sliced thin and cooked without adornment in a basket on the grill.

Grill Three

Phase Three: veggies are done, steaks are on the grill

I took a cooking class a few years ago from Annie Sommerville of Greens and she advised us to raid Cost Plus for grilling necessities. The basket is perfect for onions, mushrooms and chopped peppers. The flat perforated grill sheet is for larger vegetable pieces like my asparagus or zucchini or eggplant. I use a Weber Genesis gas grill, which is more expensive than your Home Depot grill but by no means the priciest you can buy, and am very happy with it. In fact, I own multiple Weber products and am impressed at the consistent and predictable results I get from all of them.

Steak on empty grill with pans

Here you can see the configuration of my grilling pans….

To this mix of hardware and software (AKA the veggies) I added a couple of magnificent strip steaks from the folks at Allen Brothers. They were cooked on one side to the point that, as Ollier describes it, they “surrender”. A bit of moisture is beading on the top surface that has not yet been exposed to heat, and the bottom releases easily when you lift it off the grill. It’s flipped over and cooked for no more than a minute or two, then it rests and is served as a perfect rare to medium rare.

Gently Darkened Sweet Potato

You will inevitably end up with some burned, or as I call them “gently darkened” pieces which I remove in the name of domestic harmony….

The summer is young, but I expect this is as good an outdoor-prepared meal as I’ll make all season. Until I fire up my smoker, that is….

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Recipe: Twice-Baked Potato Casserole

Twice Baked Potato Casserole

Twice-Baked Potato Casserole

The old reliable twice-baked potato, but moved to a baking dish so you can easily serve a crowd. It will hold its heat for quite a while at grillside or on a picnic table, due to its density. From Market Bistro’s John Winnek.

3 large russet potatoes (about 2 lbs total), scrubbed but not peeled
3/4 c chopped onions
2 1/2 c grated cheddar cheese (he uses white)
2 t Kosher salt
1/4 t ground pepper
1 1/2 c plain yoghurt or sour cream
Chives (optional) for garnish

Method: The day before, bake potatoes in a 425 degree oven until done, about 1 hour. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. The next day, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grate potatoes using the largest holes of a grater or chop by hand. Transfer to a mixing bowl with 1 3/4 c cheese, onions and salt and pepper; mix by hand; fold in sour cream or yoghurt. Transfer to a 1 1/2 qt baking pan or individual ramekins. Sprinkle remaining cheese on top. Bake for 30 minutes or until cheese is golden brown and potatoes are hot. Garnish with chopped chives, if you wish.

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Recipe: Green Chimichurri Steak Sauce

Steak Chimichurri Brussels

Chimichurri (at left) with strip steak and bacon-braised Brussels sprouts.

John Winnek shared this refreshing Argentine steak condiment in our Market Bistro grilling class. You can use some as a marinade, but be sure to save plenty to serve on the plate with the meat. It’s great for sopping up juice with a nice piece of crusty bread. Makes about 1 1/4 cup (about 10 servings).

1 c fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley leaves
1/2 c fresh mint leaves*
1/2 c fresh oregano leaves*
1/2 c neutral oil (canola or peanut, actually I used a mild olive oil)
1/4 c red wine vinegar
1 t red pepper flakes
8 cloves garlic

Method: place all ingredients except oil in blender and pulse to puree. Drizzle in the oil until the mixture is thoroughly emulsified. If marinating, pour over meat and refrigerate several hours (overnight if possible). Serve a spoonful of chimichurri on each plate, with the cooked steak on top.

* You can substitute basil, shiso or other flavorful green leaves or just use more parsley.

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Recipe: Caramelized Brussels Sprouts

Chef Winnek's Brussels sprouts

Chef Winnek presents a pan of bacon-braised Brussels sprouts

You can make these on an unused corner of the grill in a cast iron pan, if you like. Another of Market Bistro Chef John Winnek’s grill accompaniments. Serves 4-6.

4 oz bacon, cut into small pieces
1/2 sweet onion (like Vidalia or Texas 1015), peeled and sliced thin
2 c Brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut in half lengthwise
salt and pepper to taste

Method: Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Add bacon to cast iron pan on grill or saute pan on stovetop. Render bacon about 5 minutes until it begins to crisp. Remove from heat and drain bacon on paper towel; pour most (not all) of the bacon fat in a container for later use. Add onions to pan and caramelize on medium heat; add the Brussels sprouts and stir to mix. Transfer to an ovenproof casserole and heat in oven for 15 minutes or until Brussels sprouts are tender; if using grill continue to cook in cast iron skillet. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired.

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