For my first article published in the Boston Globe I interviewed Jennifer Nguyen, a Vietnamese woman hailing from Nha Trang, which is now, 35 years-plus after the war’s end, a touristy beach town on the eastern coast of Vietnam.
Nguyen’s grandfather ran the Southern Vietnamese/American army base’s restaurant during the war. She and her family escaped by boat to Hong Kong five years after the last US Marines were airlifted by helicopter out of Saigon. They were struck by a storm off the coast and found by a fishing boat days later. Their ship was kept anchored off shore by officials for more than two weeks, passengers were allowed one bowl of soup a day. Nguyen arrived in Boston two years later, in 1982, at the age of 24.
Jennifer Nguyen whipping up some of her banh mi. She wakes at 3 a.m. every morning, gets to the shop by four.
(Photo by Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
Now, Nguyen runs a little sandwich shop/take out place/mini grocery called Banh Mi Ba Le at 1052 Dorchester Ave. in Dorchester. She works 7 days a week from 4 a.m.-10 p.m. with a quick nap in between. Her barbecue sauce, pickled veggies, fish sauce and bread is all homemade. Fresh-baked baguettes are five for $2, sandwiches (10-inchers) are $3. She is sweet and friendly, gracious and welcoming. Her food is fresh and cheap, I highly suggest a visit.
Click here to read all about Nguyen’s special sandwiches, what the heck a banh mi actually is, and for a recipe to make them at home.
I first became interested in Nguyen’s specialty, banh mi sandwiches, last April, when we were in Vietnam for vacation. Anthony Bourdain, traveler/chef/television host featured a woman in Hoi An, north of Nha Trang on his show, so when we arrived in Hoi An, we sought out her little cart and found a long line of locals (always a good sign).
Here is the banh mi lady in Hoi An, on the mid-eastern coast of Vietnam.
Food was one of our major reasons for going to Vietnam. When I asked various Vietnamese where their food comes from, they always laughed, and looked at me quizzically. Local food is just a way of life here. Processed, packaged goods exist, but the cornerstones of the diet: fresh vegetables, herbs, meat, seafood and the like all usually come from within a hundred miles. That’s just how their food system works. An influx of wealth, globalization, etc. will certainly change this, but for now, eating locally is a way of life.
You can’t talk about Vietnamese food without mentioning pho (pronounced fuh). The noodle soup is the national dish, eaten primarily for breakfast. Most Vietnamese eat their pho from food stands because it takes forever to make the rich, meaty stock and costs about 20 cents on the street. Pictured above is chicken pho from Hanoi, pho ga. In the US on Vietnamese restaurant menus pho is sometimes called simply “noodle soup.”
Shown here is pho bo, beef pho in Saigon. A steaming bowl of any kind of pho always comes with a side of lime wedges, bean sprouts, fresh herbs like basil and mint, hot peppers and an array of condiments like nuoc cham (a ubiquitous Vietnamese dipping sauce), fish, soy, hoisin and hot sauces.
The elderly woman who ran this stand had a huge crush on Bo. While I was writhing in our hotel room, sick from some greasy tourist trap grub, he’d walk around the corner, pull up a tiny plastic stool and let his pho ladies fawn all over him. The two drinks on the table are green tea and ca phe, the ubiquitous drinks of Vietnam. Ca phe (sound it out, get it?) is strong black iced coffee, served with a generous dash of sweetened condensed milk. It’s like having someone say, ‘No, it’s cool, here you can drink coffee milkshakes all day, no one thinks it’s weird. And guess what? You won’t get fat because you are walking 10 miles a day in 105 degree heat.” Awesome.
Speaking of ubiquitous drinks. Enter bia hoi. Fresh beer brewed over night and best enjoyed first thing in the morning. That’s right, BEST enjoyed in the morning. A country where you are encouraged to drink in the morning. It gets even better. Bia hoi is served from giant vats, right on the street. At around 11 a.m. after doing some touristy things, we parked ourselves at a little stand in Hanoi and drank six each. Yes, six. They are much lighter in alcohol, that’s my only justification. We were served by cute girls who skated around on the beer-slicked floor, their oversized sandals flopping and black hair flying.
12 fresh beers, total: $1.92.