When is a banh mi not a banh mi? That is not a trick question, by the way. When it has no charcuterie? When it lacks pickled vegetables? Must it be served on a baguette? The ever-blurring boundary between all other sandwiches and the banh mi -- or what's passing for one these days -- undoubtedly will offend purists. For agnostic sandwich devotees, the mashup of cultural influences and newfangled fillings is a boon.
At Mendocino Farms, the budding fast-casual sandwich concept with a localish ethic and a haute cuisine aesthetic (so haute it has expanded into "sandwich atelier" and mixology bar Blue Cow), the most popular sandwich is the banh mi. Yet it's a banh mi that veers so far from the archetypal Franco-Vietnamese sandwich, it's served on a ciabatta.
Unless you don't like ciabatta. There are other options. Lots of them. Modernity has increasingly come to be defined by a mania for customization, and sandwich shops, from lowbrow Subway to posh Mendocino Farms, have capitalized on it.
Try not to be overwhelmed by all the choices. Chipper servers will walk you through the tough decisions: sandwich or salad, traditional or esoteric, grilled buckwheat or rustic white bread. Anything can be replaced by anything else.
Try, even harder, not to be undone by fillings like "tempeh bacon," a strip of seeded, rubbery tire tread that does double duty by insulting both tempeh and bacon.
There's lots of good stuff on the menu (including several vegetarian and vegan options), and it's easy to see why the banh mi is such a winner.
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A chewy, airy square of ciabatta is smeared with spicy mayo and layered with pickled carrot and daikon shreds, cucumber and jalapeno slivers, and a sprinkling of cilantro. It makes a substantial bed for the half-inch chunks of fried pork belly. They're less tender than they could be, but well fried and nicely crisped. The sandwich hits dead-center, and the effect is just right: meaty, spicy, crisp and moist, hearty but not overwhelming. It tastes clean. It tastes good. It looks appealing. This banh mi is, at once, vaguely exotic yet sufficiently recognizable, destined, like Taylor Swift, more for popularity than for greatness.
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