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A Saigon banh mi that's not easy to find

By Khanh Thien   January 11, 2023 | 06:56 pm PT
Without any signs, chairs, or a fixed location, Lan has been serving satisfied customers banh mi with grilled beef rolled in betel leaves for over 30 years.

Every day, Lan rolls her cart through the alleys and streets of Xom Chieu Ward in Saigon's District 4.

She often passes Ton Dan Street and Nguyen Tat Thanh Street, a major artery through the district. The smell of her grilled beef is downright flagrant when it hits you in the nose, like an unsuspected foul in a football game.

Many of Lan’s regular customers drive their motorbikes from all over Saigon just for a taste.

The beef rolled in betel leaves is constantly cooking on her grill. Photo by VnExpress/ Khanh Thien.

The beef rolled in betel leaves is constantly cooking on Lan's grill. Photo by VnExpress/ Khanh Thien

Lan said she gets up at 3 a.m. every day to ready her ingredients before beginning to sell her breakfast baguette at 5 a.m. She carefully selects her beef at the market to make sure it has the right proportion of fat and lean meat before she marinates it. The result is tender meat that is never too dry.

She also makes sure to choose betel leaves that are neither too fresh nor too ripe. And there’s something about the taste of beef cooked in betel that’s unique and special: a little bitter and sharp, but also rich and sweet and delicious.

Customers are also addicted to Lan’s sauce, which is made primarily with soy sauce and sesame, along with scallion oil.

"I have spent a lot of time developing the recipe for this unique sauce with scallion oil, so customers can enjoy this dish at its finest," Lan said.

Lan’s ingredients – banh mi (Vietnamese baguette), grilled beef in betel leaves, scallion oil, sauce, pickles, and sliced cucumber – are arranged on both sides of her cart. She stands in the middle with her beef cooking on a red hot coal fire grill right in front of her.

Lan’s ingredients are ready for assembly on either side of her. Photo by VnExpress/ Khanh Thien.

Lan’s ingredients are ready for assembly on either side of her. Photo by VnExpress/ Khanh Thien

When a customer orders, Lan stuffs the baguette with beef, cucumbers, pickles, and Vietnamese coriander before drizzling her special sauce with scallion oil and a tiny bit of chili or shacha sauce on top for extra flavor. You'll want more as soon as you bite into the crunchy baguette.

Thuy, a resident of District 1, said it's the flavorful and aromatic beef that first drew her to the cart, but it's the special sauce and scallion oil that she's been coming back for every week for 10 years.

Every day from five in the morning until five in the afternoon, Lan has sold this exceptional dish to at least two generations of loving patrons who've kept her in business for the past 30 years.

Some people have said they find it a bit inconvenient running around the many streets and alleys of District 4 to find Lan when they're hungry – because she never keeps her cart too long in one spot – but they still do it anyway, time and time again, whenever they crave the grilled betel beef baguette.

A baguette with fresh grilled beef rolled stimulates whole neighborhoods. Photo by VnExpress/Khanh Thien

A baguette with fresh grilled beef rolled stimulates whole neighborhoods in Saigon's District 4. Photo by VnExpress/Khanh Thien

In addition to the grilled beef in betel leaves, Lan also offers nem nuong - grilled pork rolls, canned fish, shumai, and shredded pork skin. The average price per baguette is still just VND20,000 (85 cents), depending on which ingredients you ask her to stuff it with.

 
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