Banh Mi Po Boy at Big Jones
Banh Mi Po Boy ($11)
One of the coolest things I've acquired while studying culinary history is a perspective on the pace of change in food trends, and it's especially interesting to watch how immigrants bring their favorite traditional foods to their new homes when they settle and inevitably influence the cuisine of their new home. This usually starts in the first generation and picks up a head of steam in the second. I've also gained a perspective recognizing that history leads up to the present day, and in fact we are making history every day.
On my last few trips to Louisiana, I've noticed culinary history happening in real time, and that is the changes in South Louisiana's foodways that are beginning to happen with the critical mass of Vietnamese immigrants to the area, some of them working shrimp boats on the coast and others working in the big city, many with their own restaurants. You never know the full potential of cultural synergy until hindsight makes it obvious, but both climate and colonial French influence have imprinted both South Louisiana and Vietnam with many commonalities, perhaps the most fascinating being the po boy & banh mi.
The breads are eerily similar, and the subject of much debate as to what lends the hallmark characteristics, but I'll venture to say that both Nola and Vietnamese French bread originate in hot, humid climates and predate widespread availability of air conditioning. I've debated this subject often with friends in New Orleans and what's obvious is that by the standards of most bakeries, this bread is overproofed, and the flour is very high gluten to be able to hold the structure of the crumb while you have a very lively yeast activity owing to temperature and humidity. Wanting to use a locally baked bread, we've selected a poolish-starter baguette, it gives the best approximation of the New Orleans version of the baguette, only slightly denser than Vietnamese French bread, which I would also attribute to New Orleans' somewhat more moderate warmth and humidity.
Getting to the punch line, Vietnamese influences have reinvigorated the po boy and with a vengeance, and since I first noticed this emerging trend I wanted to jump on it, not because it's a trend (booo for trend-chasers) but because I love SE Asian cuisine having worked in it myself for more than five years, and my time working with Vietnamese and Thais left me with a deep and abiding love for their people, cuisine, and customs, and what a joy to be able to mash it up with an icon of Southern cooking. So, here is a tribute to Louisiana's Vietnamese, I hope to see them prosper and become even more a part of the fabric of one of my favorite parts of America.
The Southern aspects are obvious here as are the Vietnamese - see if you can count the crosscurrents. Our liver boudin is smeared along the bottom of the baguette and given a douse of Red Boat fish sauce, an artisinal fish sauce from the Phu Quoc islands, then topped with layers of our Delta-style head cheese. Heirloom radishes from Spence Farm are julienned and tossed with julienned red onion, cilantro, more fish sauce, and a few shots of house-cultured sugar cane vinegar. The top of the sandwich is slicked with sriracha mayonnaise and f=given a little heat with homemade pepper sauce in the style of the Delta. We serve it with our thrice-fried beef fat potatoes, though you're welcome to select whatever side you'd like.
Pairing: Ginger beer or a Charleston Mule cocktail.
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