A different kind of sandwich
Can you still find a decent lunch these days for under $3? It’s tough, but ask a Portland food lover and chances are one of their answers will be the Vietnamese street food banh mi.
Banh mi is a kind of sandwich that came into being when the French occupied the country. Made on crispy, spongy French bread and stuffed with crunchy homemade pickled vegetables, it contains savory meat fillings and is topped with a bite fresh cilantro and jalapeno chiles.
If you are willing to head out 60 or 70 blocks into East Portland, you will be rewarded with a cultural and culinary experience that can satisfy even the most miserly budget.
Knowing what you want is important. Often the places where you can get these sandwiches are crowded with people waiting to order, very few of them speaking English. It can be an intimidating time to ask questions. Here are the basics to get you through smoothly.
First, decide which filling you want. Listed on the menu in English, the best choices for beginners are shredded pork or chicken. Usually simmered in lemongrass and garlic, the meat is tender and never dry, and most importantly full of flavor. Stick with these two and you’ll never be disappointed. After a few tries, move on to meatball, ham, pate or other specialties that can vary from shop to shop.
Stay away from non-traditional flavors like teriyaki that belong to other cuisines. Trying to appeal to the less adventurous eater, these flavors miss the mark. Too sweet and saucy, these can end up dry and tough.
Do you want jalapeno and cilantro? You will be asked if you want your sandwich spicy, which means slices of the chile will pierce every bite. Not always very hot, these peppers can surprise with their intensity. The cilantro, too, can be a bit overwhelming. Reaching the full length of the sandwich, full sprigs are just a bit too much to contend with. To benefit from the flavor without the weed-like texture, ask for the cilantro on the side, and pick the leaves form the stem and sprinkle inside.
Where to go:
Maxim’s Bakery and Deli
6812 N.E. Broadway
Open every day, cash only
Tucked into a small cluster of neighborhood shops, you will never stumble upon this place by accident. Purely traditional, the best banh mi is here. The owners went to France to learn to bake their bread and it is the star of the show. Perfectly chewy and crusty, with a soft inside, these sandwiches don’t get soggy after a few hours like the others. Try the fish and the house special, with three kinds of pork – think Vietnamese prosciutto.
Always hot and crowded, take just a minute to ask about the wild colored drinks ready to go in plastic cups. The banana coconut and yucca is phenomenal – a creamy sweet blend filled with tapioca pearls and fruit. Try the round sesame coated fried dough: a thin, chewy and nutty outside with a faintly coconut-flavored dab of mung bean paste inside.
These folks have been so successful that they are opening a new shop after the new year, over on Powell Boulevard and 78th Avenue, so they have more room to make pastry.
5345 S.E. Foster Rd.
Credit/debit over $8 only
Drive slowly on Foster or you’ll miss this bakery with some of the best deals on pastry in town. Everything is baked on site, from croissants to coconut tarts, and of course the bread for sandwiches is homemade. Fully delicious, the small sandwich menu is only a tiny part of what happens here. If the paper sign listing “chicken with special sauce" from last week is still on the wall, ignore the rest of the menu. Reminiscent of a panang curry – tangy, lots of super flavorful sauce – I found myself driving across town a couple of times to taste it again.
Also taste the pate chaud, a savory puff pastry turnover for under a dollar, and try a pastry or two. The cookies and cakes here are not “artisan" by any means, but the low prices are just astounding. Expiration dates are stickered on the packages, so choose something fresh. $1.95 buys iced Vietnamese coffee: sweet and incredibly strong, with a rich, roasty flavor.
Buy three sandwiches here ($2) and the fourth is free.
6220 N.E. Glisan St.
With three tables, this spot may be the only place to eat. Stick to the basics like charcoal pork and chili chicken. The bread here is lackluster; a bit cardboard-ish, and it quickly gets soggy.
Try the roasted coconut juice in a can, lightly sweetened with chunks of the pulp. Also available are $2 smoothies with strawberry or an unusual avocado.