I''ve been reading about bahn mi, the Vietnamese sub sandwich, for years. Restaurant critics and food bloggers in bigger cities than Madison always seem to be writing rhapsodic roundup reviews of the ten best places to buy bahn mi in their metropolis, hopping from one Vietnamese sub shop to the next.
Each baguette is crustier and/or flakier than the last, each filling variation more transcendent. Crispy barbecued pork! Scrambled eggs! Curried chicken! Cajun shrimp! Sardines! I was hooked. The problem was, I couldn't find any place in Madison that served the elusive Viet-French hoagie hybrid.
I finally heard that Saigon Noodle, on Odana Road, had bahn mi at lunch (but I never seemed to be in the neighborhood at that time), and that Asian Midway Foods in the Triangle sometimes had them on Thursdays, but I never found them there. A discussion on TDPF mentions the bahn mi at The Bamboo Hut, but that's another spot I never seem to be near.
Then a neighbor tipped me off to the sandwiches being served out of the Angkor Thom Asian Food Market in the Northgate Shopping Center on Sherman Avenue. A little stand in the back of the store, she said. Delicious sandwiches. This was it -- fulfilling even the obscure setting and mom-and-pop nature of the best bahn mi shops.
There is indeed a stand tucked away in the back of Angkor Thom, serving a very limited menu of takeout food, including (sometimes -- they were there on one visit, absent the next) crispy Thai eggrolls (50 cents each) as well as an item listed on the menu board only as "Asian sandwich" ($2.50). It does seem to qualify as bahn mi (although there's no choice of fillings, or at least there doesn't seem to be).
The sandwich is served on a pretty fresh American-style sub bun and filled with the traditional bahn mi vegetable ingredients -- pickled carrots and radishes, cucumber slices, jalapenos, and sprigs of cilantro. The bun was spread with mayonnaise and something that looked like liver paste. The meat filling was two kinds of cold cuts -- we'll call them "pinkish" and "whitish," since I couldn't readily identify them from my personal cold cut experience. There was a long pause after I asked what kind if meat was in the sandwich. "Pork," the person making the sandwich finally decided.
Bahn mi ingredient research has since led me to believe that what I had was head cheese (pinkish) and "Vietnamese ham" or cha lua (whitish). The taste was different from anything I'd ever eaten before -- sweetish, but not smoked, like western ham. These are among the traditional fillings for banh mi, although not the ones usually lauded in the sandwich's ecstatic press. I can't say it was definitely head cheese -- we'll have to send fringe foodie Kyle over for confirmation.
Ultimately, the weird play of the meat and the liver paste tastes prompted me to remove the cold cuts from the bun and try it that way, but then I decided it was the liver alongside the sweet pickled veggies that was holding me up. Maybe it's an acquired taste.
Is it good bahn mi or not? The only thing I can compare it to is a more Americanized version of bahn mi at The Mermaid Cafe in Schenk's Corners -- more about which I'll discuss next week.
Angkor Thom Market 1197 N. Sherman Ave. 608-244-4588 Market hours 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun. Serving food approximately 11 a.m.-6 p.m.