Quite a few weeks back, “Monk” and I were out and about and we needed to grab a quickie lunch (get your mind out of the gutter please). We were running errands, had banh mi on our minds, so we decided to swing by Chong Lee Market [3308 22nd Avenue E, Vancouver, (604) 432-6880] for a couple of sandwiches. Not many people know, but they have a little banh mi counter at the front of the market and it’s been one of our favorite banh mi spots for years.
“Monk” first introduced Chong Lee to me 7 years ago. We’re rarely in the area, but having grown up in East Vancouver, she was quite familiar with this Asian grocery store. Chong Lee is pretty much your average Chinese/Vietnamese market with a decent selection of fresh vegetables and seafood and a reasonable selection of Asian grocery. I’ve never been overly fond of the store, but have always liked the banh mi from there.
A few years back, when “Monk” was considering opening the “Banh Mi Tree”, we did our research and tried almost every Vietnamese sub in Vancouver. From Ba Le, Au Petite Cafe, Kingsway Deli and Tung Hing Bakery to countless more; I think in one afternoon, the two of us ingested at least 10 different subs all in the name of product research. Having travelled through most of Vietnam, we have sampled banh mi from the north all the way to the south, so we’ve definitely been exposed to our share of Vietnamese subs. Through all my Vietnamese sandwich sampling, the sandwiches at Chong Lee Market consistently rank high on the list .
What makes a great banh mi is the bread. It’s got to be fresh, the crust, golden and crispy and the inside, light and pillowy. Is it great bread on it’s own? No. I would much rather eat an artisan baguette made with a gorgeous natural starter, but for banh mi, the perfect sub starts with this simple, yet perfect, Vietnamese/French style baguette.
Let me preface this by saying, I love sandwiches. I hate skimpy sandwiches, and I feel that a well-crafted, generous, but not excessive sandwich, is a thing of beauty. I know I am going off on a tangent here, but I love the sandwiches we make at Tapenade Bistro. I think they are on great bread, filled with great ingredients, very generous, yet very well-balanced in regards to flavors and textures. I once had a pastrami sandwich at a Time Square deli immediately after finishing a James Beard Dinner, that angered me and the chefs I was with, beyond words. When the $22 sandwich arrived, it was about a foot tall, was on two mushy pieces of rye bread and was wrong to me in every way. I sill remember the first time I had a smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz’s in Montreal and I could tell you about a grouper sandwich incident at Hooters in Miami that would make most of you blush. Sorry, I need to get back on track because I could easily ramble about sandwiches for days. I am the “Bubba Gump” of sandwiches and I’ve got a long list of good and bad ones from around the world, if you ever want to hear about them.
OK, back to Chong Lee banh mi. Hey, that rhymes, I’m such a “lyrical gangster.” Aside from the bread, the ingredients are super important. At Chong Lee, I usually go for the special sub (dac biet) and it consists of a few different Vietnamese meats/hams. There is a reddish hued rolled pork belly which I love and have aptly named “caution pork” . I call it that because you need to be cautious of how much of it you eat, because it’s so good, but it’s so fatty and it can’t possibly be good for you. There’s Vietnamese headcheese, a “ham” rolled in banana leaf, a “ham” with springy tendon and a few other meats, which I know very little about. There is butter/mayo and Vietnamese pate spread on the baguette and then it’s covered with the fresh toppings consisting of pickled carrot and daikon, cucumber, chili peppers, cilantro and scallion. A little seasoning sauce (maggi sauce or some fish sauce concoction) and you’re good to go. The sandwiches at Chong Lee are made to order and are hot and toasty when finsihed.
Issue and concerns; my one issue with the sandwiches at Chong Lee is there is nowhere to eat them. I want to eat them while they’re hot and I won’t eat them in the hybrid or the Exploder, because I won’t allow baguette crumbs to run rampant. “Monk” and I usually eat them standing up in the parking lot or sometimes find a park in the neighborhood and devour our sandwiches along with some other prepared Vietnamese dishes like salad rolls, rice flour dumplings or rice rolls (bahn cuon). The sandwiches are really tasty, they are so inexpensive and the pre-packaged stuff we buy is really delicious as well. Give it a try and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as well.
On my chef’s night out scale, Chong Lee Market receives 3/5 SOB (slices of bacon).