By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
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By Eating Our Words
The Thien An sandwich shop (2600 Travis, suite 5, 713-522-7007) in the Cong Thanh Mall is also doing well. At half past noon, the line extends out the door and into the mall, an old grungy structure that doesn't offer much in the way of sightseeing. There's a fabric store, a beauty parlor and a grocery. But luckily the line moves pretty fast. When it's my turn, I try to order my favorite, barbecued pork and pâté, but I am denied. The lady behind the counter has no idea what I'm talking about. So I try a dac biet (special combination) and get all the meats mixed.
Thien An's appeal is value. The subs are $2 ("buy five get one free"), and they heap a lot of meat on the sandwich. Unfortunately, the meats and pâtés are not that appealing. The shredded chicken sits unrefrigerated in a stainless-steel container, and it's getting brown around the edges. The pork sausage is a razor-thin slice of a fatty cold cut, and the pâté is a spread that looks like liverwurst. The bread is also a bolillo, and it's not heated well. While a good bargain, it's just an average sandwich.
Thien An's cafe capsule in the Houston Press claims, "Like buffalo and chicken wings, Houston may turn out to be the city that gave America the Vietnamese sandwich. You won't even find a banh mi thit in Ho Chi Minh City " Sorry to say, we are wrong on both counts. While it seems logical that a Vietnamese submarine sandwich would have been created in the United States, such is not the case. It was invented in Vietnam. Sandwiches on baguettes are not a Vietnamese-American fusion food, but the product of a much earlier influence.
Houston, TX 77002
Region: Downtown/ Midtown
Banh mi thit (Vietnamese sandwiches): $1.50-$2.50
Vietnamese iced coffee: $2
The French held Vietnam from the 1860s until Ho Chi Minh's forces took over the North in 1954. French coffee, French pastries and French food preparations like pâté have been a part of Vietnamese cuisine for more than 140 years. While the Vietnamese may have detested French imperialism, they loved the bread.
"Created during the French occupation, 'banh mi' is a type of Vietnamese baguette that marries rice flour with wheat flour to create a much lighter loaf," says food authority Kate Heyhoe at www.globalgourmet.com. The light crunchy bread is the secret to a great banh mi thit.
French bread has remained a part of Vietnamese life. In 1997 banh mi baguettes were going for about ten cents in American money in Ho Chi Minh City, and banh mi thit sandwiches were selling for about 30 cents each. Young and old, rich and poor, capitalist and communist, everybody eats banh mi thit in Ho Chi Minh City. It is the Vietnamese equivalent of the American hamburger. Some banh mi thit stands there even offer gourmet fillings like curry and grilled meats.
For me, the French-inspired combination of rich, liver-flavored pâté and crusty baguette really makes the sandwich. So I'm acutely aware of the variations in pâtés and bread. Most Houston banh mi thit shops opt for spreadable, putty-colored pâté similar to liverwurst. At a shop in the Hong Kong City Market, I once got a sandwich with a gelatinous sliced pâté that resembled head cheese. At Thiem Hung, the pâté is a dark brown loaf cut into chewy strips. This kind of pâté is richer and meatier than the spreads. I'm not sure if the airy baguettes are authentic banh mi made with rice flour, but they are uncommonly light.
The crusty bread and homemade pâté are what distinguish the sandwiches at Thiem Hung. I go back there on my second day of sandwich-eating to double-check my first impression. The shop's pâté-and-barbecued-pork combo still wins the taste test, even after I've already consumed two other sandwiches. The place is not as busy as the shops in the Milam and Travis area, so there's no wait, and the option of the smaller, $1.50-size sandwich makes this the cheapest sandwich outlet I've tried. On top of all that, the crowd is by far the coolest.
The pictures on the wall were taken by Houston photographer Linh Nguyen. I especially like the extreme close-up of two Vietnamese kids at a table. The fish-eye view of a water buffalo plowing a rice field is pretty cool, too. "My son went to my country and took the pictures," says proud father Phach Nguyen, the owner and head chef, in faltering English.
Givral's on Milam will be back in business soon, I hope. But if not for Givral's unfortunate downtime, I might never have discovered Thiem Hung, the hippest, cheapest and quickest Vietnamese sandwich shop in town. Now that I'm attuned to more than Givral's, I intend to try Vietnamese sandwich shops in other parts of the city. I can't wait to find one that's serving banh mi thit stuffed with spicy shrimp curry.