My whole office smells of pickled daikon and shredded pork skin.
Normally, this would be a bad thing. But today it’s the pleasant aroma reminding me of the lovely bánh mì I had for lunch today. My friend Sarah and I had a sudden craving for bánh mì at lunch as we drove through Houston’s enormous Chinatown/Little Saigon on our way back to the office after running errands.
Bánh mì is a kind of sandwhich that’s a tribute to the intoxicating mix of cultures stemming from that short period of time when Vietnam was called “French Indochina.” The bánh mì developed as countryside food — a portable, working man’s lunch — made from French baguettes and meat with uniquely Vietnamese toppings, such as Vietnamese cilantro, daikon and pickled carrots. My bánh mì today was absolutely crammed all of those veggies, as well as thick pieces of fresh jalapenos. The sandwich doesn’t weigh you down or make you feel overly full; it’s a light, sweet, refreshing meal that provides a happy pick-me-up in the middle of the day when you most need it.
We stopped at the famous Lee’s Sandwiches on Bellaire and — after indecorously salivating at the mere smell of the place upon walking inside — proceeded to pig out on shredded pork bánh mì and cà phê sữa (strong coffee with condensed milk, on ice: the original Frappucino). The tiny woman behind the counter at Lee’s initially questioned my order: “Are you sure you want that? It has pork skin in it.”
My answer: “If I didn’t know it had pork skin in it already, and you were just now informing me of that fact, I would want it even more.”
She just stared at me blankly; to be fair, in retrospect, I wasn’t making a lot of sense. I was just trying to get across the point that YES, I LOVE PORK SKIN MORE THAN YOU KNOW. PLEASE HURRY UP AND MAKE ME A SANDWICH. I need to work on my verbal communication skills, I think.
The sandwiches at Lee’s are beautiful, delicious and enormous. I ended up packing away half of it and saving it for later, hence the pleasing smell currently permeating my office. But I couldn’t come back with just half a bánh mì.
Sarah and I poked around the rest of Lee’s (which is huge and more like a deli/market than just your average sandwhich shop), trying to decide which pastries we wanted to bring home with us. We finally ended up at a little counter where a man was making tiny puff pastries — similar to choux — with dollops of durian-flavored custard inside. We hung around staring at the process for long enough that he finally just started handing them over to us. We ate the little pastries with gleeful abandon, despite his warnings that they were “so, so hot!” Of course, after sampling so many, we had to buy some and left with two bags full of hot durian pastries.
Back at my office, I took one of the bags to my boss — who is Vietnamese — and she pounced on them as quickly as Sarah and I had.
“Where did you get these?!” she asked excitedly. “Ah! I see! You go to Lee’s without me!”
“Hey, at least I brought you something,” I replied with a grin.
“The boys will be so happy when I bring these home,” she laughed. “You make me good mom tonight!”
There’s nothing like good Vietnamese food to cheer you up on a nasty, wet, rainy Thursday. Feeling down? I suggest a bánh mì and some coffee and pastries. They’ll cure what ails you.