“I didn’t get into the po’ boy business to stare at tomatoes out of season, iceberg lettuce, and Hellmann’s mayonnaise all day,” the new-wave sandwich sage Cam Boudreaux tells me, referring to the traditional dressings that top the iconic New Orleans sandwich. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” he’s quick to add.
When Boudreaux opened Killer Poboys with his wife, April Bellows, in the back of a French Quarter Irish bar five years ago, he envisioned a sandwich shop that muddled with tradition. The roast beef po’ boy—the sloppy, workaday sandwich of slow-cooked chuck roast debris and gravy—became a Guinness-braised beast dabbed with a horseradish sauce. Because the restaurant’s shoebox kitchen lacked a fryer, the city’s classic, but now obscure fried potato po’ boy evolved into a roasted sweet potato variation canvassed in braised greens and a black-eyed pea and pecan schmear.
But Boudreaux’s biggest change came with his choice of bread. Instead of relying on the city’s time-honored French bread—an uber-baguette of sorts, with its glass shard-crispy crust and airy, almost melt-on-the-tongue interior—he turned to the similar but distinct Vietnamese loaves called bánh mì.
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For all its progressiveness and small-town metropolitan pretensions, New Orleans and its residents regularly resist change, especially when it comes to our food. In 2014, no less than four statewide media outlets covered the online outrage directed at Esquire magazine’s “new” po’ boy: panfried oysters with a bacon and apple slaw on a brioche bun. (More recently, New Orleanians all but threatened to riot in the streets after Disney dare reimagine our beloved gumbo.)
Boudreaux’s bread-centric bait-and-switch might be considered a scandal if not for the familiarity of Vietnamese cuisine to New Orleanians. The first wave of Vietnamese refugees who arrived in Louisiana following the fall of Saigon in April 1975 opened restaurants and groceries, especially in the suburban enclaves of New Orleans East and the towns just opposite the Mississippi River from the city. These new Vietnamese Louisianians quickly made major inroads in the shrimping and oyster industries. They opened boulangeries and bodegas, which sometimes sold pho, more often shrink-wrapped trays of spring rolls, but always, conceding to neighborhood market tradition, po’ boys.
More recently, especially in post-Katrina New Orleans, Vietnamese food has moved from the periphery to the center. Three restaurants popped up almost simultaneously along the chic Magazine Street uptown shopping district. There is a Vietnamese food truck. A pitmaster stirred up a sambal, hoisin, and soy barbecue sauce. Coffee shops served cà phê sữa đá alongside iced lattes. Non-Vietnamese chefs worked with farmers to bring unfamiliar mints and basils into their kitchens. A two-decade old suburban stalwart named Nine Roses opened a location in the middle of the French Quarter.
As in most of America, pho and bun and nuoc mam have joined the culinary vernacular. And then there’s Vietnam’s favorite sandwich, the bánh mì. Sharing a name with the baguette that serves as its vessel, the New Orleans bánh mì, like bánh mìs from Hoi An to Orange County, is layered with cold cuts and pâté, grilled beef or chicken; slathered with mayonnaise; dressed with pickled veggies, fresh jalapeño, cucumber, and cilantro; and finished with a few umami-bomb dashes of Maggi seasoning sauce. But because the po’ boy’s gravitational pull is stronger than most local foods, the bánh mì (literally: ‘bread made from wheat’) has long been sold and consumed under the moniker “Vietnamese po’ boy.”
"As Vietnamese cuisine joins the pantheon that is the New Orleans foodscape, can the bánh mì stand on its own in po’ boy town?"
Whether savvy marketing or a capitulation to convention, the bánh mì enjoys a unique position in New Orleans—pho, for instance, has never been advertised as ‘beef noodle gumbo.’ Though the rise of the bánh mì poses no threat to the city’s po’ boy hegemony—that role belongs to a noxious franchise (Free Smells!) locally owned by a certain Super Bowl hero-turned-sandwich shill—the po’ boy’s ubiquity could imperil the culture and history of the Vietnamese sandwich. As Vietnamese cuisine joins the pantheon that is the New Orleans foodscape, can the bánh mì stand on its own in po’ boy town?
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It’s hard to pinpoint when the bánh mì first landed in New Orleans, but it was a restaurant called Pho Tau Bay that first exposed most non-Vietnamese locals, including Cam Boudreaux and myself, to the sandwich.
Opened in 1982 by Karl and Tuyet Takacs, Pho Tau Bay is a spinoff of sorts from a popular Saigon pho franchise of the same name. As a young GI stationed in South Vietnam, Karl Takacs obsessed over the pho tai, or rare beef noodle soup, at Pho Tau Bay—once eating seven bowls in a single sitting. He soon fell in love with the restaurant owner’s daughter, Tuyet. They married and relocated her family to Louisiana, opening a flea market pho stand, eventually replaced by a brick-and-mortar, in the nearby town of Gretna.
Though pho has always centered Pho Tau Bay’s menu, it was the bánh mì that helped the mini Pho Tau Bay empire expand to six locations when Katrina struck. (The floods closed all but the flagship, which was uprooted by a Walmart in early-2015. In May 2016, the Takacs family reopened a storm-shuttered location in downtown New Orleans.) A decade or so into the business, Karl, Sr. began advertising in the local alt-weekly. A predominately Vietnamese customer base was replace by a non-Vietnamese clientele, so he altered the menu to read, “banh mi / vietnamese style po-boys,” a description still in place today.
“As a reference, to someone who never had bánh mì, it’s a Vietnamese po’ boy,” Takacs, Jr. explains, before amending that “it’s nothing like a po’ boy.” Though both sandwiches are quick, inexpensive, and filling descendants of the French baguette, the breads diverge enough to deserve their own categorization. “The bread is completely different,” he says. “It has density. It’s airy, buttery. It has flavor unlike your typical po’ boy from New Orleans.”
The fundamental similarity, Takacs, Jr. contends, is the world contained outside the bun: the sandwiches’ working-class immigrant roots. Back in the day, before Pho Tau Bay became a darling of the New Orleans food world, Vietnamese fishermen would order bánh mì by the sackful. They’d show up at 8 am, he remembers, slurp a bowl of pho, and “order 20 or 30 bánh mìs for the boat.” Road-tripping Vietnamese families would stop en route to the beaches of the Florida Panhandle or to visit cousins in Houston for a few dozen portable, wax paper-wrapped meals to go.
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New Orleans, like all great sandwich cities, owes its sandwich culture to its blue-collar immigrants. Local lore credits Sicilian immigrant Salvatore Lupo, proprietor at Central Grocery, for inventing the muffuletta: the oil-slicked stack of cured meats and aged cheeses topped with a cauliflower and carrot-studded olive salad and stuffed into a round, sesame loaf. The iconic po’ boy, according to the most oft-told tale about the sandwich’s nebulous origins, was coined during a summer-long streetcar strike in 1929. The enterprising Martin brothers, Bennie and Clovis, former conductors-turned-lunch counter owners, fed the hungry transit picketers with complimentary sandwiches. “We fed those men free of charge until the strike ended,” Bennie recalled years later, “Whenever we saw one of the striking men coming, one of us would say, ‘Here comes another poor boy.’ ”
What the Martins stuffed into those ur-po’ boys remains lost to history—fried potatoes smothered in roast beef gravy drippings is the most likely guess—but we do know that John Gendusa, a first-generation Sicilian, supplied the bread. As corner groceries and sandwich counters specializing in po’ boys—it’s the rare stickler who insists on calling them poor boys—proliferated in every city neighborhood, the majority of French bread loaves emerged from the ovens of German immigrant-owned bakeries: Binder, Reising, Bacher, Klotzbach, and Leidenheimer.
Originally trafficking in the dense brown loaves of his native Deidesheim, the tiny bakery that George Leidenheimer built in 1896 has since gobbled up most of its competitors to become synonymous with the city’s premier sandwich. “Sink ya teeth into a piece of New Orleans cultcha—,” the company’s omnipresent delivery trucks encourage in the local working class dialect, “a Leidenheimer po-boy!!”
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The origin of the New Orleans bánh mì is no different. In the far eastern reaches of the city, perched on the banks of the Bayou Sauvage, is the neighborhood officially known as Village de l’Est but colloquially called Versailles, after the public housing project that originally sheltered the area’s first Vietnamese refugees. Along the desolate highway that connects Versailles with the world, the parking lot of Dong Phuong Oriental Restaurant and Bakery bustles with locals and tourists hurrying overstuffed paper bags to their cars. Most, unwilling to resist the temptation, sit on the curb, laps covered in crumbs, the asphalt below their feet littered with threads of pickled carrot and daikon, as they quietly contemplate the last bites of their foil-wrapped bánh mì.
Inside, past the racks of meat pies, egg tarts, and steamed taro, a pair of women—three during the weekend lunch rushes—work the sandwich counter with a silent velocity, an automated proficiency that appears as if they can make a sandwich before a customer has completed his order. “They are very fast,” Linh Tran Garza, the owner of Dong Phuong Bakery, beams with pride, “I think they can take anybody as far as speed.”
Garza’s parents, De and Huong Tran, opened Dong Phuong in 1981, the region’s first Vietnamese bakery. Huong, the daughter of a famous Saigon baker, built the business crafting moon cakes, flaky pastries filled with mung bean, sweet red bean, durian, or lotus seed paste and traditionally eaten around the Autumnal Equinox. While De, a South Vietnamese Air Force veteran and aspiring engineer, spent nearly a decade tinkering with a bánh mì recipe. He studied baking books, compared po’ boy loaves, and forced his children to eat bun after unacceptable bánh mì bun.
“He brought a lot home for us to try,” Garza remembers. “We were like, ‘No!’—it was not quite as good. We were always the test, the guinea pigs.” By 1991, De had perfected his bánhmì. They started with the #1 combo special, called đặc biệt, or pork liver pâté and cold cuts. From there, sixteen additional sandwiches, from #2 (patê chả lụa, Vietnamese ham) to #17 (lạp xưởng, Chinese sausage), have been gradually added to the menu. Non-Vietnamese rushed to order sandwiches in a part of town lacking in po’ boy shops.
“We don’t have a lot of older generation Vietnamese coming over anymore,” Garza concedes. “The younger generation—we try to bring our parents to try other foods and things, so...a lot of the traditional foods might be slipping away,” she says, noting a decline in sales of her mother’s moon cake. But the bánh mì, sandwiches and loaves, are more popular than ever. After Katrina, Dong Phuong unleashed a fleet of delivery vans onto the streets of New Orleans, helping spread the cult of the bánh mì, in addition to the bakery’s cultish king cake during Carnival season. Today, those vans deliver to over 100 area accounts.
With more than enough accounts to service, at least three Vietnamese-owned bakeries—Chez Pierre, Golden, and Dong Phung’s longtime rival, Hi-Do—make and distribute their own bánh mì buns. And then there’s chef-owner Mike Gulotta of MoPho, a restaurant that entwines Vietnamese and South Louisiana flavors, who commissioned breadmaster David Weiss of Weiss Guys Bakery to invent a bánh mì-po’ boy hybrid. “I wanted this happy medium,” Gulotta says. “I didn’t want it quite as crunchy as the Leidenheimer, and not as dense as a Dong Phuong.” Together, they formulated a pistolette that harmonizes with MoPho’s menu of sandwich offerings, many of which combine typical po’ boy fillings (fried shrimp, fried oyster, or pulled pork) with the traditional bánh mì dressings (pickled vegetables, fresh herbs, and jalapeño). “I’ll probably go to Hell for this,” Gulotta laughs. “[That sandwich] is a full bastardization.”
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But the bánh mì’s best hope to advance beyond its “Vietnamese po’ boy” status is at Banh Mi Boys. A petite canteen attached to a Texaco gas station at a busy highway intersection in the suburb of Metairie, Banh Mi Boys levels the playing field by offering separate menu listings for bánh mì, served on Dong Phuong bread, and po’ boys, delivered via a ten-inch Leidenheimer loaf.
“My parents are traditional,” chief Banh Mi Boy Peter Nguyen tells me. “They wanted a for-sure thing” when they decided to build out the space adjoining the family business. His mother wanted to open a simple po’ boy shop, much like the one they owned down the street before Katrina took it away. “I wanted to do Vietnamese, because we’re Vietnamese,” Nguyen says. “And I didn’t want to do another pho place. I wanted to focus on bánh mì.”
"Just over a year old, Banh Mi Boys acts a site of tremendous convergence, a place where the po’ boy and bánh mì stand side-by-side."
It was a battle—po’ boys fought for menu space with spring rolls, mom feuded with son. Nguyen with zero professional kitchen experience, experimented all the while with sandwiches: the Vietnamese dish of grilled steak and egg, called bò né tossed on a bánh mì; a smothering of Oysters Rockefeller, a New Orleans specialty since 1899, crammed into a po’ boy loaf. Instagramming customers arrived, mom relented (she serves po’ boys again in a suburb on the other side of the city).
Just over a year old, Banh Mi Boys acts a site of tremendous convergence, a place where the po’ boy and bánh mì stand side-by-side. Customers raised on roast beef or wary of liver pâté sandwiches are “relieved that we have both,” Nguyen says, “but I’ve turned a lot of people on to bánh mì.” Now frequent visitors mix and match breads and dressings. Want to trim your hot sausage po’ boy with picked carrots and fresh cilantro, Banh Mi Boys can do that. Vietnamese meatball (xíu mại) daubed in mayonnaise and garnished with pickle slices, why not? The permutations are endless.
On my most recent visit to Banh Mi Boys, Peter Nguyen pulled me aside and offered me a plastic clamshell overladen with his latest experiment, a spin on a local specialty: bread pudding made from day-old loaves of Dong Phuong bánh mì. “I couldn't do a regular bread pudding,” he shrugged as I sank my spoon into this newest bite of New Orleans culture.