Creative Cooking

Creativity on Display at Third Annual Great Banh Mi Cookoff in Houston

Houston’s very own Great Banh Mi Cookoff, hosted and organized by Boat People SOS of Houston (BPSOS), took place Wednesday night at Anheuser-Busch Brewery. For the third year in a row, approximately 300 guests joined in the fun while supporting a good cause as local chefs tried to wow a panel of judges with their best creative takes on Vietnam’s most popular sandwich, the banh mi.

Typically, banh mi consists of an oblong French bread roll stuffed with protein (e.g., Vietnamese cold cuts, grilled pork, meat balls, chicken, etc), pickled carrots and daikon, a sprig of cilantro, and jalapeño. Condiments such as butter, mayonnaise, liver pâté and Maggi sauce are often used.  For the cookoff competition, chef-competitors took creative license with everything from the proteins to the pickles, the bread and the condiments. The entries were judged on presentation, creativity and taste.
First-time competitor Eric Aldis of Midtown Barbecue wowed attendees by searing foie gras on a flat-top burner, which enticed people to his table with decadent aromas. “Instead of going the traditional route, we went with our Texas roots,” says Aldis. “We made a little barbecue, smoked some prime brisket, did a little pulled pork, then we seared off some foie gras. After we seared the foie gras, we toasted the bread in the fat, and then we stuffed the little nibs back in the sandwich.” Fresh cucumber, a pickled veg medley, a little green goddess dressing, fresh Thai basil and fresh cilantro finished completed his impressively constructed Texas barbecue-style banh mi. It sounded amazing and there was no doubt as to the quality of the ingredients, but the flavors seemed muted somehow. Maybe it needed barbecue sauce?

Drawing from his experience as a sushi chef, Jason Liao of the upcoming poke spot Pokeology introduced the world to his “Shag-Mi Banh-Mi,” the only seafood-based sandwich of the night. He said it was inspired by the sushi maki known as the “Shaggy roll.” The banh mi consisted of snow crab, sunomono cucumber, shrimp pâté, hatch chilies and honey wasabi. It was tasty, too, and washed down well with the Budweiser on tap, but it felt too much like a sushi roll and not enough like a banh mi.
Will Ducante of SaltAir Seafood Kitchen took inspiration from France and Spain with a duck confit banh mi. It was stuffed with duck confit, duck liver pâté, Ibérico ham, micro cilantro and fine herbs, and the ingredients gave it the kind of pedigree that one might find in a fine-dining restaurant at lunch. What kept it humble was the bread, which he sourced from popular banh mi shop Alpha Bakery in Alief. “We went to five different places, and this was a revelation,” says Ducante.

Newcomer Viet Tran of the Sugar Land Friday-Saturday pop-up banh mi shop Vietwich crafted his banh mi based on a dream about a tiger. “It was something ferocious. It gave me inspiration, because I wanted to create something spicy, something flavorful, something a little bit different. So I started out with a little crostini, a little bit of shallot mayo, pickled papaya with cilantro and Thai basil, marinated beef flank, topped with sriracha crumble and chile threads,” he says. The result was memorable, tasting lot like the steak sandwich version of the Vietnamese cold salad dish known as bo tai chanh (rare beef cooked with lime).

One of the early favorites to emerge came from Cuc Lam (also a food freelancer for the Houston Press) of Just Cuc It. Presented on a square wooden plate embossed with her name on it, her take on banh mi involved shredded chicken that had been marinated in five-spice that she’d sautéed in lemongrass, garlic and Thai peppers. She topped her creation with cabbage slaw seasoned with a ponzu vinaigrette, adding the traditional pickled carrots, jalapeño and sprigs of cilantro. The bread was toasted for nice texture, the overall flavors reminiscent of Thai larb meat salad with a savory five-spiced component. Lam took third place in the cookoff.
Tony Nguyen and Man Dao of Wokker Texas Ranger food truck teamed up with independent chef Arash Kharat, a.k.a. Space City Cowboy, to make an open-faced take on the banh mi that made use of their skills with a smoker. Their offering: a smoked, made-from-scratch head cheese and smoked pork belly char siu banh mi topped with pickled fennel and carrot, and microgreens. The inventive bite scored major points for tastiness and originality, but fell short of perfection owing to the somewhat chewy texture of the pork belly. They came in second place.  Taking home the top prize for the night was defending champion, KA Sushi. Heading the culinary effort was chef Trung Nguyen with an over-the-top duck banh mi. “I roasted the duck and confited the meat, separating the meat so we could crisp the skin in sheets like Peking duck. I then made a pâté with the duck giblets and foie gras, and rendered the duck fat to make duck fat butter. Then you have house-pickled carrots and daikon, cilantro and jalapeño,” he said. The richness of the duck fat spread, when combined with the layers of alternating duck confit, crispy skin, and the sweet and crunchy pickled vegetables made for an unforgettable sandwich, earning KA the title of Banh Mi Cookoff Champion for the second year running.
Great effort was also put forth by the rest of the evening’s competitors: Linda and Ronnie Nguyen of Roostar Vietnamese Grill, whose signature gogi beef (Korean marinated beef) banh mi earned them People’s Choice winner; Jett Hurapan of Songkran Thai Kitchen with a grilled chicken, smoked red curry and crispy shallot banh mi; Darius King of Chef King Co. with a Hawaiian-inspired Kalua pig with bacon mayo banh mi and traditional fixins; and Nick Hoan Tran of CUBIs Corner with a traditional Vietnamese pork belly banh mi served on a French baguette.

The Great Banh Mi Cookoff is a fundraiser hosted and organized by BPSOS. This year's event raised more than $10,000 toward the organization's efforts in support of Vietnamese refugees in Houston.

Judge's Choice:
1st Place: Duck Banh Mi by Trung Nguyen of KA Sushi 
2nd Place: Smoked Head Cheese & Smoked Pork Belly Char Siu Banh Mi by Wokker Texas Ranger and Space City Cowboy
3rd Place: Five Spice Chicken Banh Mi by Cuc Lam of Just Cuc It

People's Choice:
Gogi Beef Banh Mi by Ronnie and Linda Nguyen of Roostar Vietnamese Grill

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham