Almost exactly a year ago, I got an email from the people who own the Victoria pub on Queensbridge Road. They wanted to know if I was interested in taking on their kitchen and serving food once or twice a week. Nothing came of it in the end; it turned out to be way more trouble than it would have been worth. But it did make Marion and I think long and hard about the sorts of food that could be easily served in a pub environment that haven’t already been done to death.
We came to the conclusion that banh mi baguettes – those incredible Asian sandwiches celebrating the glories of pork and pickle – would be perfect. They offered everything a drunk person wants in a meal; lots of bread, lots of heat, lots of vinegar, lots of salt and lots of deeply savoury meat. We had a couple of goes at making them even after the pub gig fell through and found that, while it was time consuming making the spiced pates and terrines that went in them, the result were universally excellent.
It actually made us think that it was a bit of a travesty that these amazing sandwiches aren’t more widely served around London. Every other type of sandwich has been appropriated by the capital’s food world – from burger to pork buns – after all. But for some reason banh mis seem to have slipped through the net; other than at a few places around Old Street they’re notoriously hard to track down.
They serve them at Nam Caphe on Kingsland Road as well, so we go one wet Saturday when we want a comforting hit of spice and pork. The interior of the place is a little odd – and not much like the rest of the joints on the strip. Here tables are Formica and there are club night posters on the walls as you enter; all promoting people like DJ Kentaro and Roni Size – in short people I thought had stopped making music about the time everyone was concerned about the Millennium Bug. When you add in the fact that they’ve also allowed people to draw on the rest of the walls, you end up with a restaurant that has more than a whiff of the art school canteen about it.
Service is painfully slow, but to be fair there are only a couple of people working and they do seem to make the melon bubble tea and Vietnamese iced coffee from scratch so perhaps we should let them off.
Both drinks are insanely sweet (why is it that really hot countries always favour teeth-destroyingly sugary beverages?) but criticising them for that would be like being angry about LCD Soundsystem making really long and progressive remixes; it’s the whole point of them and if you’ve brought into the idea of either of them then you just have to accept the fillings that are probably coming your way or that you are going to have to listen to cowbells for next 10 minutes.
Finally our baguettes arrive and they’re pretty damn good. The bread is still warm, crisp on the outside and fluffy within. Fillings also hit the spot, with a particularly good pate providing the meaty base notes required to support the whole thing. The only duff notes came from the Char siu-esque pork slices, which I thought were too dry and crumbly. The pickled veg also lacked a little punch – losing out somewhat to the Sriracha we both smothered our sandwiches with (probably making it our fault for overwhelming the pickles in the first place).
In the end, these banh mi were OK, especially for a fiver. But I still think there’s a market for really great one. Come on London, it’s time to ditch the burger love and embrace the banh mi.