Số đỏ/Dumb Luck, by Vũ Trọng Phụng

What a difference a century makes! Only a little more than a hundred years after Nguyễn Du’s elegant, Chinese-influenced epic, comes this howlingly profane and unashamed satire of a Vietnam deep in the grips of French influence. Satire, I fear, is a product of its time, and although there were certain elements of this romp through Vietnam which were quite amusing, among them the “Being There” motif of a wholly unqualified person rising stratospherically throguh society. The central conceit of this work, as I understand it, though, is an exploration of just what “modernization” and “Europeanization” were thought to mean in early-mid-20th-century Vietnam, simultaneously representing desirable progress and the abandonment of cherished traditions. The overarching theme thus becomes “modernization is a great thing… for everyone else!” This comes to the fore early on with Mr. TYPN (translated into English as Mr. ILL)’s vocal objection to his wife’s shopping at his boutique, and doesn’t really develop much more in the way of nuance thereafter. I feel like certain aspects of the story straight up sailed over my head, because I wasn’t familiar with either the pre-Europeanized Vietnamese culture (aside from knowing it was heavily Chinese-influenced), nor the particular stew of European influences and the lens they were seen through at the time. It was a reasonably enjoyable read, because it was fun and lively and clever even when not wholly comprehensible, but I fear I might not actually have gotten the joke.

Truyện Kiều/The Tale of Kiều, by Nguyễn Du

Pretty much all I knew about Truyện Kiều going in is that it was more-or-less the national epic of Vietnam and that it had a female protagonist. It’s actually a peculiar work, simultaneously very much an artifact of its time and somewhat atavistic; at a time when Vietnam was dealing with uniquely Vietnamese problems and trying to rebuild itself, it’s kind of peculiar to see a major poem which is cribbed shamelessly from a Chinese source (the plot is lifted from a forgettable sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Chinese novel). But the tale of Kiều is in some parts also the tale of Nguyễn Du, who was evidently a scholarly figure of a previous court and a previous era, one that looked to the Chinese with far more admiration. Nonetheless, it’s a mite perplexing to see that what is put forward as an extraordinary Vietnamese work is really quite extensively imitative of a foreign culture.

I was reading the annotated Huỳnh Sanh Thông translation, which was excellent: I have no idea to what extent it captured the specific poetic stylings of the original (my edition was a parallel text, but I am really in no position to evaluate the poetry of the Vietnamese text), but it managed to use excellent metaphors which gave me hope that it was, at least, a quite faithful translation, with ample glossing for those metaphors which would be opaque to a Western audience.

The story itself is… well, it’s not what you come to the text for although it’s a pretty surprising one when you get right down to it. Kiều is a character with surprising agency and reserves of character: she shows at turns emotional sensitivity, filial piety, cleverness, and determination, without ever overcoming her fate. The sense that she’s far too smart to keep getting tripped up by these misfortunes reminds me in many ways of Odysseus, but unlike the Odyssey (what with being a nineteenth-century tale), Truyện Kiều is relentlessly a work of realism. I was kept interested and invested in the character for sure (definitely more than in her beloved; and in fact her return to the ineffectual and callow love of her youth seemed to me somewhat a step down from the fiery and ambitious warlord who had been her major love interest in the second half of the text), and the text feels well-constructed. I read in some part as a story rather than as a poem, but I appreciated its poetic mode.

I’m not sure if Truyện Kiều is a work well worth the reading for everyone. I approached it chiefly out of curiosity, and with a disposition to like it. I’m not sure I came out of it really understanding Vietnamese culture or poetic style more than I went in, but I enjoyed it, for its stately and proper approach to what was often a rather sordid tale, and for its well-drawn protagonist. The glossed Huỳnh text appears to actually be an excellent translation, and fortunately the most widely available one.

Bánh mì in Louisville (part 17 of an onging series): Cafe Thuy Van

With this review, I think I may have run out of bánh mì places in Louisville for the time being. Of places I’ve visited, Saigon One, French Indo-Canada, and Morels have all shut down; to fill the food-truck void, Banh Mi Hero has started a mobile operation, running alongside their permanent storefront.

The new tenant of the late, lamented Flabby’s Schnitzelburg may someday get in on the game: the owner envisions a tavern with southeast Asian small plates, and I basically promised that if he had a bánh mì, then I would be there and write it up.

Cafe Thuy Van on UrbanspoonCafe Thuy Van (5600 National Turnpike) has been on my radar for a very long time, but it’s far enough out of my usual orbit that unless I’m already pretty much at Iroquois Park it’s not worth my while to go there. I’ve noted that they have only what appear to be “breakfast” bánh mì on the menu: one with eggs, and one with eggs and sundry pork bits. Both are considerably above my usual expected Beechmont/Iroquois price point, in the mid-seven-dollar range. The place is pretty sparsely furnished but airy (“minimalist” might be the word), family-run with a real sense of being a family joint. Their main menu item is phở, like most Vietnamese sit-down eateries, and the clientèle is mostly Vietnamese. They do solid and reliable entrees and soups in my experience. I rounded out my meal with a lemonade and a bí cuốn, which ended up close to $15 all told. Oh, well.

[Photo of sandwich from Cafe Thuy Van]As for the actual sandwich: well, it grieves me to say that it isn’t one. Now, admittedly, bánh mì does not mean “sandwich”, it means “baguette”, and there are dishes with names involving baguettes, such as bánh mì bò kho, which are not sandwiches but are simply another dish (e.g. bò kho, a beef stew) served with a baguette. But in this case I am authentically confused, possibly due to some sort of roundeye ignorance. This platter certainly seems to have much suggestive of the essential elements of a bánh mì: there’s a sweet sauce, traditional pickled slaw, cucumbers, and protein. The only highly requisite elements missing are the mayo and the cilantro, suggesting this is at the very least a first cousin of what’s been called a bánh mì everywhere else I go. But it’s completely disassembled! I don’t want to come off all snobby, but if I pay twice the going local rate for a sandwich, I kind of expect to have it assembled for me. So getting something which was Not What I Expected kind of soured me on the deal, and it means that by my usual standards, this was somewhat unrecommendable: the actual sandwichcrafting part of a bánh mì is usually what I go on, and if I build it myself than any balance issues are my fault, not theirs (er, except for the balance issue of no cilantro or mayo. What’s with that?) The actual meat was pretty decent, but it’s the same stuff I’ve had on bún and the like. The eggs were eggs. The slaw was good but not transcendent, and the bread… ah, alas, far too many places neglect the bread. Now, Cafe Thuy Van doesn’t really have a lot of bread-based dishes, so it’s not unexpected, but is somewhat disappointing, to have an airy loaf with no real crust.

So, all in all, I can’t recommend Cafe Thuy Van for bánh mì. Maybe someone will set me straight and let me know that similarity to what I’ve been consuming as bánh mì wasn’t actually part of this dish’s ambitions, but certainly it doesn’t really meet my expectations at all.

Bánh mì in Louisville (part 16 of an onging series): Against the Grain

Last of the backlogged Louisville reviews! This is from Octoberish, I think.

[Photo of sandwich from Against the Grain]Against the Grain Brewery and Smokehouse on UrbanspoonAgainst the Grain (401 E. Main Street) is a microbrewery and restaurant close by Louisville Slugger Field. They do short runs of a staggeringly large variety of beers, rotating their six main taps each among one of a hoppy, smoky, dark, malty, session, and wildcard brew, with additional seasonals and outside beers making frequent appearances. They’re serious about their beercraft and also make damn fine barbecue sandwiches and platters.

But how does such a place end up in my bánh mì reviews? Well, in among the pulled-pork, sausage, and brisket sandwiches, there’s also something they assert is a “turkey banh mi”. And of course I had to eat it. It’s a $10 item, although that does come with slaw or chips.

Well, AtG is another roundeye joint, so I don’t expect authenticity. In the end, it’s pretty far afield from being a bánh mì at all, although in fairness I must confess it’s actually a pretty good sandwich. The biggest problem I saw with its Viet authenticity is the meat. Turkey’s not really a standard meat (chicken is and it’s not too far afield from that) but the bigger problem was the preparation method. Smoked meats are kind of the AtG food service’s raison d’être (not to be confused with the Dogfish Head fruit-infused beer of the same name), and their turkey, true to form, is aggressively smoky. That makes for a very nice meat and a very nice sandwich in its own right but is the entirely wrong dominant flavor for bánh mì. The smokiness completely overwhelmes the other elements: the slaw seemed a bit sparing, and I didn’t see any cilantro at all, so really there’s no mitigating elements reminiscent of the proper Viet form. Even the roll was off form: it’s a hearty bun from Breadworks, perfect for piling brisket high on, but whichever baker claimed it’s a baguette might have to have his toque blanche taken away.

So, yeah, I can’t in good conscience recommend the bánh mì at Against the Grain, unless you really hanker for smoked turkey. There are other sandwiches there which better showcase their talents, and places which do a more well-balanced bánh mì.

Bánh mì in Louisville (part 15 of an onging series): Wiltshire Pantry

Still quite behind on the bánh mì reports, I’m afraid. I’d been noticing Wiltshire Pantry for a while, and Shannon and I finally dropped by, like, last autumn. This is how out of date I’ve gotten.

[Photo of sandwich from Wiltshire Pantry]Wiltshire Pantry Bakery and Cafe on UrbanspoonWiltshire Pantry (1310 E. Breckenridge Street) is a spinoff business from the upscale Wiltshire on Market, which is one of the several linchpins of the East Market neighborhood’s culinary flowering. The Wiltshire Pantry serves three needs that the original eatery doesn’t, and comprises a catering business, a bakery, and a café focusing on light meals. The second and third purposes particularly dovetail, as the café is generally showcasing sandwiches on a selection of chosen breads from their stock. As luck would have it, when we visited, the baguette was being highlighted with a $9.50 bánh mì, but the menu changes frequently enough that I wouldn’t walk in expecting to find a bánh mì here.

As mentioned previously, price is one of the things I’m a stickler for, having come into this game among the $3 sandwiches of San Diego. $9.50 seems a mildly crazy price to me, but we’ll soften the blow with geography (east of Preston we’re no longer in dive territory with dive prices), pedigree (Wiltshire on Market is proportionately more expensive, with quality to match, than downmarket competitors), and meal completeness (the quinoa salad and pickle spear, if culturally a mite dissonant, felt like they improved the value proposition).

Ignoring price, though, my conclusion is that Wiltshire does many things well, from a general sandwichcraft standpoint, but that the bánh mì as a whole felt like it lacked a certain depth of flavor. Let’s start with everything that worked: the bread, as befits a place which claims to be a bakery, was quite good. It wasn’t, of course, a Viet-style baguette with the rice flour snap, but asking them to do a one-off bread product when they’re trying to showcase their main line of products might be too much. Nonetheless, it was a nice robust baguette, with a light but crisp exterior and some softness inside. My main nitpick as regards bánh mì suitability would be shape: it’s a somewhat narrow loaf akin to a flûte when my ideal bánh mì loaf would be wider and closer to a bâtard. The pâté was unsurprisingly excellent and provided the primary flavor component; I felt it was a little too smooth but now we really are getting into pure nitpickery.

My main disappointment was in the lack of Viet-specific flavors. The daikon slaw and meat are places when the flavor really pops in a lot of these sandwiches, and they were somewhat muted in comparison to the pâté, so somehow the magic of the bánh mì never quite came thtrough, but I’d give this one props for being one of the more authentic offerings provided by a place whose cuisine is not actually Vietnamese.

Bánh mì in Louisville (part 14 of an onging series): ValuMarket at WorldFest

I’m way behind — this is from a festival in August! — but to summarize, ValuMarket’s bánh mì is bad and they should feel bad.

Sorry, wanted to get that in on the Facebook summary. Perhaps more discussion is necessary. At the Louisville Worldfest, all manner of cultures show up to show off their food and dancing and music and geegaws. It’s a lovely event, with free entertainment and, if you’re willing to pay, a delightful variety of food to cram into your gaping maw. Two years ago I spent about an hour chilling and drinking coffee with a mellow Ethiopian guy after putting down my hunger with sambusas and some Colombian torta-thingy. I’ve been tempted by the Ethiopian coffee ever since, but it’s been really very hot the last few years and near-boiling coffee isn’t pleasant on a 96-degree day.

Surprisingly, there’s historically not been much bánh mì there (or much of a Vietnamese presence at all). ValuMarket always has an enormous stall, featuring everything from guava pastries to ham croquettes. So this year, with a mission, I knew I had to have their bánh mì.

ValuMarket (5301 Mitscher Avenue, and 5 other locations) is a local grocery chain with I assume some sort of affiliated national (they have house brands of most staples). The Iroquois location has Bosnian and Mexican and Arabic and Asian food aisles, and is the go-to grocery store for culinarily adventurous folks who quail at the disorganization and lack of English-language labels and general unhelpfulness of true ethnic groceries like Phuoc Binh or the Rahim Food Mart. Their Mid-City mall location has great beers and will fill you a growler at pretty reasonable rates. So there’s much to like about Valumarket. It’s also got a deli counter, and both at their deli counter and at their food stalls at various Louisville festivals (Worldfest, Beerfest, and possibly other things ending in ‘fest’), their Cubano is regarded as a splendid example of its type. They do not normally sell bánh mì, but they had them at Worldfest for $7, same as their Cubano (which may seem steep, but that’s festival pricing for you).

I am sorry to say (with regard to a business I generally respect and whose products I enjoy) that their bánh mì is the single worst exemplar of that noble sandwich which I have ever had, and I include some San Diego specimens which might have given me mild food poisoning in that assessment. The fact that it cost twice as much as the perfectly adequate product of Dong Phuong was merely the addition of insult to injury. I will briefly summarize its faults, because they do not bear harping upon. First, while a squishy sub roll is indeed the correct shape, it is not even close to texturally appropriate, either in the snap of the crust or in the lightness of the dough, to a good proper baguette. Second, one may well note that the ingredients of a bành mí gá include shredded chicken and mayonnaise, one cannot create good bánh mì filling by sprinkling cilantro over chicken salad.

So, yeah, ValuMarket. Awesome Cubano. Very nice international goods. Great price on chorizo. But you guys are on notice for your crimes against sandwichcraft.

Bánh mì in New York City: Bánh Mì Saigon

I went on the road for close on two weeks a month ago, and I figure I owe it to both of my readers to follow bánh mì in cities I visit. Hartford does not appear to have much in the way of bánh mì (Hartford, apparently, barely has food at all, at least in the downtown). In Boston, alas, I didn’t have time to visit reader-recommended Ba Le. But in between was a fantastic visit with my brother and sister-in-law which afforded an opportunity for a day trip into the city, wherein I supplemented my gawking and sightseeing with a flyby to a well-regarded bánh mì place out near the Little Italy/Chinatown area. And I stated writing this there, but it kind of fell by the wayside, so I’m finishing it up now.

[Photo of sandwich from Banh Mi Saigon]Banh Mi Saigon Bakery on UrbanspoonBánh Mì Saigon (198 Grand Street) is a venue widely regarded among the collective wisdom of the internet as one of the best in New York, but there’s no lack of competing institutions in the neighborhood, many of which are no doubt excellent. Their decor is a peculiar blend of high-gloss trendiness and divey shabbiness: LCD screens with the menu and photographs of Vietnam overlook rather rickety chairs along a low bar, while the well-stocked and -maintained drinks fridge is incongruously graced with an unframed, stained photograph of an artichoke. The floor plan is open, with the kitchen fully visible from the register and waiting area, and the place is noisy, and, at least during peak hours, crowded. Seating is sparse but seemed to always be available. My $4.50 bánh mì bí (reasonable, especially by NYC standards) was supplemented with a $3.00 chanh muoi soda.

As for the actual sandwich itself, well, from the picture one thing should be obvious: namely, that they don’t skimp on fillings. It’s got quite good fillings too, with a substantial wedge of cucumber, an absolutely enormous pile of nicely nutty bí, some tangy slaw, and fresh cilantro. Actually, the overfilling may have made the balance suffer slightly, since one can only cilantrize a sandwich so much, and the sheer quantity of other things made the cilantro notes fainter.

But there are aspects of sandwiches I’m a snob about, and bread’s one of them. The BMS roll is very good but could have stood to have a slightly fluffier interior: the frangible crust was nice,b ut there was a certain hardness through (not of a stale variety, merely of a certain toughness) which is very slightly outside of my happy place.

However, the quibbles about this sandwich were faint indeed, and it seems to have earned its laurels as regards being quite good. Couldn’t say for certain that it’s the best in New York, seeing as how New York is a very big city, but I can well imagine it being one of the best quick-bite places in Chinatown.