There's been a lot of chatter (here and elsewhere) about bánh mì this past week, which naturally prompted me to go eat my favorite version from Mei Sum in Boston's Chinatown. Now, before I get into it, lemme just be clear: I haven't yet worked my way through all the popular bánh mì shops in Boston, and I have yet to find a bánh mì shop anywhere that gets every version they make just right.
For example, the sweet-salty grilled pork bánh mì at Pho Viet in the Super 88 Food Court is terrific, but I find their tofu iteration (even though the curd is marinated) a little bland. Meanwhile, the barbecued beef sandwich at Mei Sum is just so-so. But their fried tofu bánh mì? That can't be touched.
Note: the sandwich case is easy to miss if you're not looking for it. Most of the divey bakery is taken up with cafeteria chairs occupied by older men who idle away the day over a cup of coffee, a pastry, and gossip. Just keep walking to the far end of the retail counter.
First, the kindly proprietress pops a baguette into the tiny toaster oven for about a minute. There's no browning taking place; the idea is to warm the roll just enough, so it's crisp on the outside but still pleasantly chewy inside.
While that's heating up, she slices the tofu into thin slabs. It's the same pre-fried, pre-packaged stuff that's sold in most of the Asian markets around town, and it works perfectly here. The wedges are wrinkly on the outside, creamy within, and just firm enough to hold their shape in the sandwich. (Other versions I've had use tofu that's too soft, which breaks and crumbles in the sandwich. No good.)
Once the roll is heated, she coats the inside with a thin layer of their sweet mayo-butter spread. Then she packs in the filling.
The sweet-tangy pickled vegetables--shredded carrots, daikon radish, onion, and cucumber matchsticks--are sliced thin, which makes the difference between vegetables that are cooling but watery and vegetables that are cooling and fully steeped in the flavorful brine. Next come cilantro sprigs, kindly snipped with scissors so you don't get the whole stem in one bite, and a dash of fish sauce. Finally, there's the chiles.
The heat level is up to you, but extra-spicy is the best if you're so inclined. The tiny rings of Thai bird chiles don't make it into every bite, but you'll know it when you find one. Burns so good.
One last note: I'm hesitant to give a price here, because I swear it fluctuates between $2.75 and $3. That said, I don't care one way or the other. It's still the best, most delicious deal around.
Mei Sum Inc.
36 Beach Street, Boston MA 02111 (map); 617-357-4050