Rochester’s best dishes: Banh Mi Sandwiches

by Vince Press | August 31, 2016 | Rochester Magazine

You might not associate bread with Vietnamese food, but knowing that the country was under French colonial rule in the late 19th century explains this utterly delicious mash-up of a sandwich.

The literal translation of banh mi is “bread made from wheat,” and it began in Saigon as a simple European sandwich with only butter, ham or paté. Due to its abundance, rice flour was also used.

In Vietnam, the baguette was an exclusive, luxury food sold in bakeries or cafés. It wasn’t for the masses until the fall of French rule in 1954. The subsequent Asian influence on it added condiments and trimmings like pickled vegetables, herbs, chili peppers, spreads and alternative proteins like thinly sliced beef, pork and chicken.

As many Vietnamese began to migrate to Europe and points west, the banh mi came with them, launching its popularity and availability—from street carts to deli counters. The transformation continued as Western and additional Asian ingredients made their way between the buns: pickles, radish, mayonnaise and a variety of cured and prepared meats.

Rochester has quietly maintained a few banh mi baguettes for some time. Tucked-away, tiny Vietnamese restaurants such as Pho Duong Dong, Saigon Pho and Nam Vang Restaurant are sensible, traditional starting points for your banh mi journey. Some newcomers and innovators like The Stoneyard American Beer Hall, The Rabbit Room and Root 31 offer or have offered twists on tradition. Still others have found a permanent place on their menus for this delicious East-West fusion.

Marty’s on Park – 703 Park Ave., Rochester; 434-3292.

“Pork Belly” Banh Mi; $9

Any sandwich-centric joint should have a take on a banh mi, and Marty O’Sullivan sure delivers at his. For the protein, half inch-thick slabs of five-spice-rubbed Bostrom Farm’s pork belly are beautifully crusted up on the flattop. There’s a bounty of house pickled veggies involved, like daikon (Japanese) radish, red onion, carrot and jalapeno, along with cooling cucumber rounds, fermented red pepper aioli and the ubiquitous cilantro garnish. It’s manageable, right-sized, not too drippy and just decadent enough. Marty experimented with different baguettes and landed on one from Leo’s Bakery & Deli. It’s uber-squeezable, holding everything together nicely. While on the menu full time at the Marty’s on Park location (where they’re now serving beer and wine!), it’s also occasionally on their food truck.