Asia is the source of inspiration for a growing list of young sandwich concepts across the United States. With new and mouthwatering ingredients, they are competing as to who makes the best, richest, juiciest and spiciest sandwich on the block, outshining BLT, Hot Dog & Co. In fact, rumor has it that bánhmì and other Asian sandwiches might become the new burrito or taco.
Anyone interested in culinary diversity knows: there is so much more to Eastern cuisine than spring rolls, bami go-reng, sushi, chopsticks and take-out containers. And it’s from the streets of India, Cambodia, China and Vietnam where the youngest US sandwich trend takes its innovative spur. Across the Asian continent, curbside food vend-ors sell sandwiches that unite crunchy bread or wraps with fresh herbs and vegetables, juicy meats and intense spices. A tempting combination – and a promising core product for food-service entrepreneurs. The current star on the Asian sandwich scene is the Vietnamese bánh mì. It’s available across all segments – even at fine-dining restaur-ants or food trucks.
What makes the bánh mì sandwich so popular and approachable is that it marries the familiar (a sub sandwich) with the foreign (Vietnamese cuisine): “It is characterised by a French baguette that has a crispy exterior and a very soft fluffy white bread interior,” says Denis Tran of Bun Mee, which opened in San Francisco in April 2011.
“The veggie ingredients in a bánhmì are typically pickled carrots and daikon for the tartness, sliced jalapenos for kick, cucumbers for coolness, cilantro for the herbs, and a very eggy mayonnaise. The meats, for example five spice chicken, lemongrass pork, or cured meats such as headcheese and pate, are usually marinated for hours and grilled.“ Though the menu also comprises salads, appetizers, rice bowls and sweets, 60 percent of all foods sold at the 111 sqm fast-casual Vietnamese eatery are bánh mì, which cost from $6.50 to $7.95. Average check per customer: $12.
At JoJu’s in New York City, open since July 2011, all foods are prepared on the premises in an open kitchen, allowing customers a full view of the kitchen. With a focus on “bánhmì with a modern twist”, traditional Vietnamese sandwiches are limited to two to three varieties of style.” By combining flavours from other cultures, e.g., Korean and Japanese, with the essential items of a bánhmì, we offer a sandwich that tastes salty, sour, sweet, and crunchy all in one bite,” says Scott Wong, co-founder of JoJu. The 75 sq m unit offers seating for 16 customers, most of whom are high school students or young professionals. Though other -Vietnamese foods such as spring rolls or flan are served, bánh mì stand for 90 percent of food sales. The top three bestselling items: Lemon Grass Chicken ($4.25), BBQ Pork ($4.50) and Beef Bulgulgi (thinly sliced rib eye-beef with kimchi, $5).
While the Vietnamese sandwiches at Bánh Mì Saigon in New York City or BonMi in Washington D.C. are equally popular, well-established brands such as Shop House (Chipotle founder Steve Ells’ youngest Asian fast-casual project) or Mama Fu’s have also added their own bánh mì sandwiches to their menu: Mama Fu’s version features wok-seared protein (chicken, beef or shrimps), sweet-and-sour vegetable slaw and a spicy mayonnaise, all served on a toasted French roll. “We sell nearly as many bánh mìs each day from our Black Market Menu as our average rice and noodle dishes from our core menu,” says Randy Murphy, Mama Fu’s chief executive. Most of them are sold during lunch.
Other regions of Asia have equally inspired America’s sandwich-makers. Num Pang, for example, is the Cambodian take on the bánh mì offered by a New York City sandwich bar that goes by the same name. Since the opening in 2009, a second store was added by co-founders Ben Daitz and Ratha Chaupoly. The basis for a rotating selection of Num Pang sandwiches are always freshly toasted semolina flour baguettes, with homemade chili mayo, pickled carrots, cilantro and cucumber. Though thus far, the filling resembles the bánh mì, it’s the proteins that make the difference. Here’s a small selection: Thai-Basil infused grilled bluefish with leeks, coconut tiger shrimps, hoisin meatballs with jasmine rice, basil and stewed tomatoes, grilled Khmer sausage with Asian slaw. For his pulled-pork version, the Cambodian-born chef braises the meat with orange juice, -apple cider vinegar, garlic and dried chilies, and glazes it with honey. “There is a lot more cooking involved here than you would imagine for a sandwich,” says Chaupoly.
For anyone looking for Indian tastes that go beyond curries and rice, The Kati Roll Company and Thelewala in New York City may offer just the right culinary -experience. Kati Rolls ($3.50-6.75) are made by wrapping warm paratha, a type of Indian flat bread, around a variety of meats, vegetables and cheese. Each ingredient is marinated in a proprietary blend of Indian spices, creating a distinct-ive taste. Diners may choose from a select few fillings like beef, chicken, lamb, egg, cheese or potatoes to construct a Kati Roll to their liking. The finished Kati Roll is wrapped and served hot.
“Nizami Rolls were something I truly missed in New York,” says Calcutta-born gastro-entrepreneur Shiva Natarajan. “I’ve been eating them since I was five years old.” After two successful British-Indian fine dining restaurants, he opened the Nizami Roll House Thelewala (Indian name of the person that pushes a street cart) in summer 2010. The bread for the wrap sandwiches is made daily at the store. Customers’ favourites are: Chapli Roll (minced lamb, red onions, lime and fried egg), Okra Roll, Chicken Malai (chicken with fried egg, red onions, cumin and coriander). All rolls are spiced up on request with green chilies. “Nizami Rolls are nourishing, fast, easy to eat and rather cheap,” says Natarajan. Prices range from $4 to 6 per roll. Average check per person including beverages: $9. Who eats at Thelewala? “It’s a very young crowd that usually does not eat at Indian restaur-ants,” defines the operator his 150-200 customers per day. “They just don’t associate our concept with curry or other hot dishes that are usually considered typical Indian food.” Most rolls are eaten outside the small 19 sq m sandwich bar: take-away stands for 60 percent of business, delivery for 30 percent. In 2013, Natarajan wants to open a second location outside of NYC. He’s convinced: “There’s still great potential for concepts like mine.”
Shao Bing are the culinary heart of Boston’s Asian Sandwich Bar Fóumami. The basis for all breakfast and lunch sandwiches ($6.75-7.95) is an unleavened bread – somewhere between focaccia and pita – that is typical for the Chinese Shandong province. In an open kitchen, “Two separate sets of dough are combined and rolled out again to create a consistency that when baked at a high temperature is crisp and flaky on the outside, while soft and chewy on the inside,” says founder Michael Wang. For the fillings, Fóumami draws on many influences: Beyond the family recipes that are influenced by China’s Shandong region, Korean flavours infuse the Ribeye Steak Sandwich, while the Chicken Katsu Sandwich draws its inspiration from Japan. Each sandwich features one principal ingredient while supporting elements such as crisp or caramelised vegetables and freshly snipped herbs are meant to complement and round out that flavour.