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The best places in Tokyo to taste Vietnam in a baguette

by Alex Dutson

Special To The Japan Times

Remember that rumor about “Mama” Cass Elliot from the Mamas and Papas? The one about how she died in bed while munching on a sandwich? I heard that as a child and for years I took it as a cautionary tale about bedtime snacking, or else as evidence that fate has a rather whimsical sense of humor. It would serve a third purpose equally well: as a warning for those about to indulge in Vietnamese banh mi — the hulking behemoths of the sandwich world.

In the classic banh mi dac biet (special sandwich) you’ll find a trio of pork: steamed deli ham, fatty roasted pork belly and cheese — which isn’t cheese at all, but the rolled and pressed scrapings from a hog’s head. Slivers of pickled carrot and radish, slices of cucumber, red hot chilies and fistfuls of coriander jostle for the space inside. A splash of lime juice and drizzle of fish sauce link all the flavors and give the sandwich that fresh Vietnamese flavor.

The result is basically Vietnamese resistance against the French realized in sandwich form. The French likely introduced the baguette, butter and pate to Vietnam in the early 20th century — the ingredients of the simple Parisian sandwich. But the banh mi eaten around the world are something distinctly Saigonese: stacked with ingredients, big on personality and thoroughly irrepressible. Austerity and elegance have no meaning in this context. You can almost imagine one leaping from a Frenchman’s hands and slapping him roughly across the jowls, leaving only the brassic twang of fish sauce on his lips.

The standard in Tokyo is probably set at Banh Mi Sandwich (1F Azegami Seven Bldg., 4-9-18 Takadanobaba, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; 03-5937-4547; banhmi3.exblog.jp), a tiny cubbyhole of a shop with a loyal following and lines that snake out of the door at lunchtimes. You’ll need to arrive at least 20 minutes before it opens to be sure of getting either of the best-selling sandwiches: the spicy roast pork or the Vietnam ham and liver paste. While you wait, you’ll also be subjected to a curious kind of Pavlovian experiment involving a single stereo speaker and an endlessly looped song whose only discernible lyrics are, “I want you, I need you, banh mi.”

The Vietnam ham is profoundly satisfying, with two kinds of steamed deli meats, char sui, swipes of liver paste and fresh coriander. The spicy roast pork is minced, including a sweet glaze and fiery bursts of chili heat. Either makes a fine lunch, and although you’ll have to eat in the parking lot, this really is no bad thing, as banh mi are best while the bread is still warm and has lent some of that heat to the pate. Both are ¥550, as are the other varieties, such as roast chicken, shrimp and avocado, and roast beef.

A close second to Takadanobaba’s Banh Mi Sandwich, but big on atmosphere and dipping sauces, is Kita-Senju’s Hanoi & Hanoi (03-6803-0788; 1-28-13 Senju, Adachi-ku, Tokyo 120-0034; sqnw.shop-pro.jp). The tables — all three of them — are reached via a narrow alleyway, past a downstairs kitchen, and finally up a vertigo-inducing flight of stairs. Outside there are corrugated steel panels covered in ivy, a rusty blue bicycle and colorful plastic chairs of the kind that can be found at any roadside Vietnamese food stall or bar.

The single banh mi on the menu is of the minced and roasted pork variety. In comparison with Takadanobaba’s offerings, the key flavors are amped up: bigger dose of citrus, hotter coriander and a thorough lacing of spicy and incandescent sriracha sauce. At lunch there is a fish set that includes a golden, crispy skinned fillet of white fish, mollusks in their spiral shells, rich with iodine, and a very authentic cup of rich and sweet Vietnamese iced coffee. All of this comes in at less than ¥2,000.

Much better known by now is Kamata’s My-Le (2F Sekine Bldg., 5-1-4 Kamata, Ota-ku, Tokyo; 03-3732-3185). The restaurant has been on the same site for well over 20 years, and is often said to be the best Vietnamese restaurant in town on account of the range of dishes on offer and the authenticity of the sauces. I was impressed with the taste of the nuoc mam fish sauce, which didn’t lean too heavy on either the garlic or the lime making it softer on the palette. It is perfect when liberally applied to any of the three banh mi on offer: shredded roast chicken, pork and pate, or nem nuong (sweet soy-infused minced pork).

Banh Xeo Saigon (B1F Yurakucho Itocia Bldg., 2-7-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; 03-3211-0678; vietnam-banhxeo.com) has staked its name on serving high-quality crispy golden pancakes, but doesn’t. They’re limp. I ordered the deep fried soft-shell crab, which when done right is marvelous. But it was done wrong, with flesh that tasted old and gravely, and smelled of dirt and musk. Thankfully the banh mi upended the general theme of disappointment, being sumptuous and warm with succulent folds of pork, the sweetest slices of fresh tomato and mayo-moistened bread that practically deflates under your teeth.

This is just the kind of sandwich that begs you to cuddle up with it. It promises comfort and the fending off of the world. But if you are going to take it home with you, just be careful how you swallow.