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The glass is tinted dark, and the paint above the window is peeling. The Thiem Hung Vietnamese sandwich shop looks pretty shabby from the outside, but Houston Presscontributing writer Paul Galvani is determined to eat lunch here. "Banh mi thit, that's what we're looking for," says Paul, pointing to the three magic words on the restaurant's sign. The interior is actually brightly lit and clean. The crowd is young, Vietnamese and good-looking -- boys with earrings and hip-hop haircuts, and girls in tight-fitting designer pants. The walls are covered with arty black-and-white photos of rural Vietnam and urban Houston. Not at all what I was expecting.
The Vietnamese sandwiches come in $1.50, $2 and $2.50 sizes here. Paul gets a pâté sandwich, and I order a barbecued-pork-and-pâté combination, both in the $1.50 size. The bread is a section of a crusty baguette, warmed thoroughly in a toaster oven. The bread is split and buttered before the meats are added. The pâté is homemade, we are told, from beef and liver. The condiments are carrot shreds, a cucumber sliced lengthwise, slivers of jalapeño, cilantro and a couple of shots of soy sauce.
A pregnant silence descends as Paul and I eat our sandwiches. A shower of crumbs accompanies every bite -- the bread is exceptionally crunchy, like a good baguette should be. The dark black pâté is excellent. And then the moment of judgment arrives. "I think it's just as good as Givral's," Paul says.
Houston, TX 77002
Region: Downtown/ Midtown
Banh mi thit (Vietnamese sandwiches): $1.50-$2.50
Vietnamese iced coffee: $2
"I think it's actually better," I answer in amazement.
Finding a new Vietnamese sandwich shop has been a top priority for Houstonians lately. "Now that Givral's Sandwiches on Milam has had a fire, where can one find cheap, great Vietnamese subs?" a reader named Saundra Brown asked me in a recent e-mail. Saundra isn't the only person with this question on her mind. Downtowners reportedly are wandering around Little Saigon like a bunch of junkies in search of a fix ever since Givral's closed for repairs.
So with Paul's help, I went on a two-day banh mi thit binge. And I discovered that while Vietnamese sandwiches may all look the same, the differences in taste range from subtle to profound.
Banh mi means "bread roll" in Vietnamese, and thit is variously translated as "meat" or "ham." A banh mi thit (Vietnamese sandwich) is a crusty little baguette stuffed with your choice of seasoned or barbecued pork, chicken, Vietnamese meatball, pâté or a combination of meats, with carrots, cucumbers, hot peppers, cilantro and soy sauce. The multicultural mélange on a bun has become one of Houston's favorite lunches in the last few years -- not only because it tastes so good, but because at $2 apiece, it's one of the best food deals in the city. Givral's (2704 Milam) was a Press newsroom favorite for many years, but it is temporarily closed because of the kitchen blaze.
Starting at Givral's and working my way down Milam and up Travis, I checked out several other possibilities. Right across the street from the shuttered Givral's is a bakery called La Baguette (2808 Milam, 713-520-5475), which has recently started making banh mi thit sandwiches on fresh-baked rolls. The bakery has always served a vegetarian buffet at lunch, and it used to offer vegetarian sandwiches only. But since Givral's closed, they have expanded their menu to include the meat-stuffed variety as well. Unfortunately, the sandwiches taste like they were made by vegetarians. The meat portions are skimpy, and the pâté looks like some kind of canned meat spread. The pickled daikon is a nice touch, though, and the bread is an authentic Vietnamese baguette. I am willing to bet this place serves one helluva vegetarian Vietnamese sandwich.
Across the street and down a few blocks is Cali Sandwich(3030 Travis, 713-526-0112), a Vietnamese restaurant that serves its namesake dish along with pho and other things. It's noon, and the place is packed. I order a pork-and-pâté combo sandwich, which comes on a blunt-end banh mi roll that looks like it was baked at La Baguette. The bread is nice and crunchy, but not very hot. The pâté is the liverwurst type; the pork has an artificial red color and a revolting jellied texture near the edges. There is more jalapeño pepper on this sandwich than usual. As I chew, I gulp soda to douse the heat. The jellied pork gives Cali's sandwiches a below-average grade.
On the other hand, the barbecued pork on the sandwich served at Ba Le in the Hoa Binh Center (2800 Travis, 713-520-1965) is top of the class. Black and spicy along the edges, the pork tastes like the real thing, and it makes a terrific sandwich stuffing. The pâté is a spread, but it's not too bad. The bread is a tapered torpedo roll with a razor slash on top -- I am pretty sure it's actually a Mexican bolillo. This bread is chewier and doughier than a banh mi roll, but regardless, the sandwich, as far as I'm concerned, is the tastiest one available in Little Saigon. The Vietnamese iced coffee looks pretty good, too. Ba Le also wins the award for the weirdest decor: It looks like somebody gift-wrapped the front counter.
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.
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.