Picnic in the Park: Saigon StyleMonday, November 17, 2008
I woke up on Saturday to a gorgeous, sunny, 78 degree day…in November.Â I guess this makes up for all that whining I did in July over chilly SF weather.Â I promptly threw on a sundress and packed a bag for a picnic in the park!
As always, we wanted to go cheap, easy, and delicious.Â Vietnamese it was!Â We headed to Lee’s Sandwiches in Little Saigon.
A classic American dream success story, the Le family left Vietnam and immigrated to San Jose in 1980.Â Starting with one catering truck, the Le business quickly expanded to the franchise they are today with 15 locations in northern California, 17 in Southern California, as well as locations in Texas, Arizona, and Oklahoma.Â My stomach thanks them for their entrepreneurial spirit.
The Lee’s in SF is an impressively efficient amalgamation that is part fast food-style ordering counter, part mini-mart.Â Walk in and you immediately want to try everything.Â They keep a good stock of authentic Vietnamese snacks, drinks, and foodstuffs that I haven’t seen before, and Hua was like a kid in a candy store when he found familiar items from his childhood (like Pennywort drink, a bright green liquid that he says is refreshing…I say it tastes like grass…not in a good way.)
We ended up over-buying, of course, but it was ok, seeing that a whole Vietnamese sandwich (BÃ¡nh mÃ¬ thit nguoi) was only $2.50!Â We got the “Special Combination #1,” a foot-long, freshly baked French baguette, spread with rich paté and a touch of mayonnaise, stuffed with slices of ham and headcheese studded with peppercorns, and topped with pickled daikon radish and carrots, long slices of crisp cucumber, and fragrant cilantro.
I must admit, the first time I encountered the bÃ¡nh mÃ¬, I was dubious.Â It sure didn’t look impressive…and what was that scary looking meat?Â But I braved a bite, and I’ve been hooked ever since.Â To me, this sandwich epitomizes what I love about Vietnamese cuisine – the mixture of savory meat and fresh, vegetal crunch, the brightness of sweet pickled condiments, the gorgeous colors, and the ultimate fusion of East meets West with crusty French bread and Asian garnishes.
On to the rest of our feast.
I saw a package of bÃ¡nh hoi thit nuong and could not resist.Â Grilled, marinated pork chop bits, wrapped in lettuce and thin rice vermicelli, and then sprinkled with some sort of bright orange topping that looked like smelt roe from afar, but was meatier…like little shreds of seafood jerky.Â On the side is some nuoc cham (fish sauce) with a kick to it.
I’m a big fan of bÃ¡nh hoi, the thin rice noodles.Â It’s cooked so that the strands are woven together to form a kind of flat panel, and then cut into strips so you can wrap it like sushi.Â In restaurants, it’s often served with green onions that have been doused with hot oil, and plated with lettuce, meat, and toppings so you can make little wraps.
A pair of summer rolls (goi cuon), the perfect light snack on a warm day.Â These pretty rice paper rolls are stuffed with whole shrimp, slices of barbecue pork, green onion, lettuce, and rice vermicelli.
Cha lua is a type of sausage roll made with ground lean pork that has been pounded to a paste, potato starch, and fish sauce.Â It is wrapped tightly in banana leaves, and boiled until, as tradition goes, it bounces when thrown onto a hard surface.Â Directly translated, cha means “sausage” and lua means “silk,” as supposedly the texture of the sausage is smooth like silk.Â Hmm, rubbery silk?Â That sounds about right.Â The texture of this is quite chewy, but also about as smooth as a meat product can get.Â I’m not a huge fan of this, but perhaps it’s an acquired taste (as I look at Hua chomping away on the meaty, slightly fishy, sausage log).
For dessert, we got a sweet, icy, coconut drink called chÃ¨ ba mÃ u.Â Also called “three colors” (sam sic) in Chinese, this colorful drink is sometimes made with mung beans, black-eyed peas, and azuki beans.Â This version had red kidney beans, a sweet green jelly that tasted like coconut, and buttery, sweet coconut milk.
And of course, I had to get a Vietnamese iced coffee (café sua dÃ¡).Â Dripped strong, mixed with sweetened condensed milk, and poured over crushed ice.Â Decadent enough to be dessert.
625 Larkin St
(between Eddy St & Willow St)
San Francisco, CA 94109