I almost always blow through lunch on weekends with hardly a craving or belly rumble. If dinner plans with friends or family don't stop me from indulging in anything substantial at midday, my Saturday breakfast ritual of coffee and eggs will keep me fueled throughout a busy day of pulling weeds, entertaining our dogs, or weighing the best pillow options for cradling my throbbing skull after a late Friday night. On a weekday, lunch is critical for breaking up the workday into manageable halves, but on the weekend it's little more than a distraction. So it wasn't surprising that on a recent Saturday, it wasn't until mid-afternoon when I looked up from whatever the hell I was doing that was so important and said, "We need to get banh mi before they close!" I'd been craving Vietnamese sandwiches all week, but a few hours of absentmindedness almost cost me a trip to New Saigon Bakery and Deli, which locks its doors at 4 p.m.
Thoa and Thu Nguyen, the daughters of New Saigon owners Ha Pham and Thai Nguyen, opened the bakery and deli right next to their parents' place eighteen months ago, and this offshoot of the popular Vietnamese restaurant (my stop last week) has been a hit from the start. It's advantageous to hit New Saigon Bakery early not only to avoid getting shut out entirely, but because -- as at many European-style delis and bread shops -- the weekend crowds often clear out the more popular items quickly, leaving latecomers with fewer choices. This trip was no exception. Despite the late hour, every counter stool was occupied and a line at the cash register kept the harried and somewhat overwhelmed clerk dashing between the counter and the drink fountain. Fortunately, the kitchen and sandwich board were in good hands and kept up a brisk and steady flow of to-go orders.
We tangoed with strangers around the fortress of stacked French cookie cartons and bulk bins, trying to figure out where, exactly, the line ended while eying bundles of jerky, nests of dried shrimp, and sticky piles of jelly candies. As we waited in line, a woman attempted to haggle over the price of an entire case of fresh lychees. When our turn came to order, a few of the banh mi filling options had already been stricken from the menu -- as was the papaya salad with dried beef -- but we still came away with a pork belly banh mi, two kinds of spring roll, and a green pandan waffle.
Every seat in the place was claimed, which meant enduring a quick car trip home with the smells of all those herbs, sauces, cured meats and baked goods spreading their tendrils out from the to-go bag. The waffle never even made it out of the parking lot; its aromas of fresh bread and caramelized sugar coerced us into ripping into the bag and tearing off sugary bites as crumbs scattered across the dashboard. Pandan, as it turns out, is the vanilla of Vietnamese baked goods -- elevating the sweet, bready flavors of the pastry ingredients while lending just a tantalizing hint of exotic herbal flavor without ever becoming the star of the show. The result was a kind of exponentially amplified Belgian waffle with enough richness -- like a sugar cone with a dollop of vanilla ice cream -- that no toppings or syrup were needed.
Back at home, we took our time enjoying the fresh, crusty bread of the banh mi and its wild tangle of cilantro, shredded carrot and slabs of marinated pork belly with alternating bands of tender meat and almost liquid fat. A thin layer of spiked mayonnaise melded the ingredients into a luxurious and tangy slaw of bright Vietnamese flavors.
Both of our spring roll choices also contained pork: the pudgy bo bia featured strips of Chinese sausage with julienned jicama and slices of omelet, while the grilled pork paste roll included cilantro, an unidentified chive-shaped herb (perhaps more pandan?), and a secondary, tiny fried wonton roll that itself contained threads of chive. That's right -- the roll had another roll buried within its ingredients. I wondered if this wasn't some recursive spring roll that contained an infinite number of progressively smaller and smaller rolls. My math skills fall well short of the ability to calculate the possible flavor combinations available in each banh mi bite with its many distinct ingredients or graph the orders of magnitude that each component ramps up my level of satisfaction. But in simple terms, lunch from New Saigon Bakery adds a little bliss to a sultry Saturday afternoon. Oh, and a plastic cup of icy, fresh sugar-cane juice can only multiply the pleasure with a beguiling combination of sweet and tangy that's as far beyond granulated cane sugar as that pandan waffle is beyond a frozen, grocery store waffle.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.