I undertook a head-to-head bánh mì battle, surveying the various options for the Vietnamese sandwich here in town and, at the insistence of my editor, selecting one as "best in town".
Unlike Southern cities such as Houston and Atlanta, which have large Vietnamese immigrant communities, bánh mì is brand new to Charleston, showing up for the first time last year. (Though, after the piece ran, I did hear via Twitter that there used to be an Asian grocery out at Rivers and Remount that sold them back in the early 2000s.) Included in the story is a look at the roundabout way the sandwich traveled from the streets of Saigon to upscale digs on Charleston's King Street, plus some musing on banh mi as an example of the American culinary melting pot at work:
A food starts off as an exotic dish found only in immigrant communities. Then, a few intrepid outsiders stumble upon it. Finally, if all the stars are aligned, it goes mainstream in a big way and, as the years pass, becomes so thoroughly a part of American eating that it's no longer thought of as "ethnic."
Of course, the "stars are aligned" part is the key. The hot dog may have made the journey from exotic "frankfurter sausage" to American icon, but how many other German delicacies didn't? That gap from ethnic to mainstream is pretty darn wide.
I suppose it’s time for the hipsters to start moaning about shark-jumping and inauthenticity and move on to the next new thing.
In fact, we’re hearing it already. The local versions have raised grumblings over their prices. "Hate they charge $10 for this sandwich!," one reader Tweeted. "It's a $2 sandwich in CA!" And then there are the creative liberties. Short ribs and kimchi on a bánh mì? You’d never find it that way on the streets of Saigon!
Yes, but in some ways that’s just the point. Bánh mì began as a fusion of different food cultures, and it’s only natural that adaptation continues as it moves to new locales. The core palette of bánh mì flavors — the cool, minty cilantro merged with carrot crunch and jalapeño heat — provides a firm platform that can support any number of riffs and variations. Roasted eggplant? Eggs and Canadian bacon? Pulled pork and pickled okra? Heck, why not.
Hot dog partisans argue fiercely over the merits of New York’s mustard-and-kraut version versus the dragged-through-the-garden excess of the Chicago-style dog. No one worries about how they used to serve them in Frankfurt. Perhaps in a few decades, sandwich fans will get just as passionate about the endless variety of traditional American bánh mì. It might just happen.