Friday, October 24, 2014
My Dung Sandwich Shop in Los Angeles's Chinatown is a hole-in-the-wall on Ord Street just off North Broadway. And please, don't laugh at its name.
The first thing I saw when I approached were displays of tropical fruit outside, rambutans and kiwi, cases of jujubes and bunches of small, curved ripe bananas.
Step inside and it doesn't look like a deli, it looks like a storage room. There are shelves stacked high with cases of canned goods, packaged noodles, bottled condiments and Asian candy.
There's not a counter, exactly, but there is a deli case, blocked by more crates and shelves - an array of Maggi bottles, canned Vietnamese ham, and canned sardines are at eye level. On the side wall is an electric clock with a gaudy pastel image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. On top of the deli case is a little fan against the stuffy early autumn heat and, curiously, two water bottles labeled "holy water" in red Sharpie.
The menu on the back wall lists ten items - eight different banh mi, or Vietnamese sandwiches; packaged dessert and coffee. The banh mi sandwich is a wonderful amalgam of Vietnamese and French Colonialist culture, now here in Southern California and all over America. A light, crusty baguette, made with wheat and rice flour, slashed open and filled with porky meats, pickled vegetables, slathered with mayonnaise.
I ordered Number One, or banh mi dac biet, better known as the Special. You might call it the Daily Special, but it's the same every day.
It's the Special but it's also a little bit of everything, the Daily Combo. It's also, for most people, the Usual - the most commonly ordered sandwich.
The meats are all traditional but they echo the rich, multicultural history of Vietnam. There's French inspired pork or chicken liver pate, head-cheese similar to jambon persille, crunchy with pig ear cartilage. There's garishly pink-edged Chinese-style barbecued pork, or char siu. Cha lua, or pork roll, is a kind of Asian-style mortadella or bologna, steamed in banana leaves. A slice of this, a schmear of that, it all goes in the Daily Special.
The woman behind the counter wears a black baseball cap, and she hardly looks up as she makes my order, except once, to ask me if I want chiles. Slices of emerald green jalapenos bejewel the sandwich, arrayed with julienned pickled carrots and daikon, length-wise slices of cucumber, and springs of cilantro. The bread is smeared with rich mayonnaise spiked with Sriricha sauce and lime juice. My Dung is known for having a heavy hand with mayonnaise, and I like that.
My Dung is a simple little place with a limited menu.
There are other places you can get banh mi in Los Angeles, sandwich shops in strip malls or Asian jewelry arcades; there are even Vietnamese banh mi chain stores. There are places with more extensive menus, offering grilled chicken, roast pork, or canned sardines in tomato sauce. You can get one with little sour pork meatballs, or nem nuong. There are vegetarian banh mi, with grilled tofu. You can get a breakfast banh mi, with eggs and sausage.
But wherever you get a banh mi, it looks the same; tightly wrapped in deli-paper, a single paper napkin secured by a rubberband around the middle. Here in Los Angeles at My Dung, it costs about $2.50.