Friday, July 2, 2010

Who, Banh Mi?

I am naïve. Not usually. Just this once, really. Nah, probably more than once. A few times at least…now stop interrupting. Here was the best laid plan: All summer, when en route somewhere or encountering down-time, track down the closest food truck and locust it. Take pictures, write about it, and share the LA food truck experience with those who can relate, and those who would like to.

Here’s where it all goes wrong. Remember making cereal box cities as a kid? Anyone…? Bueller…? Ok, quick recap: you basically save up a ton of empty cereal boxes, cover them with construction paper, and make a little city. Of course, back then cereal boxes were easier to come by. Considering the towering cereal prices now, thanks to what I consider to be a corn-crime-syndicate, they might be a little harder to come by. Cereal box cities have gotten expensive, the same way real cities have.

Which leads me to my point: Los Angeles is very much NOT a cereal box city. EVERYTHING IS FAR AWAY. FROM EVERYTHING ELSE. Terms like “I’ll swing by on my way,” or “let’s just meet in the middle,” and “it’s just around the corner,” are useless here. They sit in piles, to be shipped off to small towns, bucolic suburbs, and manageable American downtowns. Anyone who’s ever flown into LA at night knows that you are technically in the city about half an hour before you land-and seeing it all spread out like a circuit board below you really hammers home the sheer scope of it.

Which is what I was naïve about. I have lived here for almost four years, and I know better. A city with a freeway list that ubsurdly includes a 10, 110, and a 101, is not going to make a challenge like this easy. So I am adjusting. It’s going to take a bit more planning, a bit more organization, a bit more moxie, and a lot more gas than originally thought. However, I can say it’s worth it. Worth it to the tune of lemongrass pork banh mi, people.

First of all, a sandwich you can barely pronounce has got to be good. I have heard about these mystical Vietnamese sandwiches many, many times, but had yet to come face to face with one-until this week. I set my sights on the Phamish truck, known for its spring rolls, iced Vietnamese coffee, and of course, the traditional banh mi sandwiches. There is technically an accent over one of the letters in the “banh” part of the situation, but my keyboard and I don’t know each other that well, so let’s just say it’s implied. And the “h” at the end is purely decorative, apparently.

A French bread baguette filled with heavenly layers of pork, chicken, or beef, and a crispety crunchetty mini-salad of fresh veggies. Cucumber strips, carrot sticks, cilantro, and ambitiously thick slices of hot pepper. Cold, hot, spicy, salty, fresh, and crunchy all at once, all fighting for your attention. It’s a draw until you get to the pepper slice, which handily wins.

On this particular day, the Phamish truck was stationed outside an office building on a shady street in Beverly Hills. A very different crowd than my hippie friends at the farmer’s market in Los Feliz. Web designers with ID tags on lanyards around their necks, and computer programmers with converse peeking out of their dress pants. (Note: I am 100% speculating on the above listed professions. “Web designers and computer programmers” is my way of summing up the entire group of people who work with computers and websites, and anything else smaller than a breadbox that can launch a missile or buy stock-I have no capacity for nuance in this field.)

I heard people in front of me ordering it cut in half and condensed. Less bread. Not for me. “Less is More” is a paradox, and I rarely to never eat paradoxes. I got the lemongrass pork banh mi and took a seat on the grass next to a bubbly group of (maybe, maybe not) web designers and computer programmers. As I unwrapped my treasure, I instantly understood the “less bread” idea. If a sandwich could say “en garde!,” it would have. It wasn’t so much a sandwich as a dare-16 inches long, and almost comical, as though it should say ACME in block letters along the side. And the final blow…it was scrumptious.

I noisily munched my way through this banh mi, and covertly eavesdropped (in between chewing) on the office gossip swirling around me. Unreasonable bosses, a shrinking post-it supply, abused group e-mail accounts.

“Why can’t he just say the yogurt in the fridge is his? He has to label it?”

“If he brings it up at one of those meetings, I’m going to lose it.”

“I eat it because it’s labeled.”


It was so office-y! And yet, here, in the middle of a typical American workday in the middle of Beverly Hills sat a building’s worth of people eating a Vietnamese baguette with an implied accent over one of the letters.

It’s one thing to seek out specialized foods in a location heavily populated with a certain ethnicity. Just today, I hit what might be described as a “runner’s high,” if I had been running. It involved an ethereally light, warm and crunchy churro from the churro truck I have been stalking around the corner. I ate my churro as I passed a panaderia, a pupuseria, and a woman selling hot dogs wrapped in bacon sizzling on a cookie sheet in the back of a shopping cart over a flame of indeterminate origins. “Eater’s High.”

But this was something else: Beverly Hills. Computer programmers and web designers(?) Vietnamese/French colonialist baguette. I won’t lie, I felt a little bit personally fulfilled. This situation might only be possible with a food truck. And the next day, all of Venice beach might be crunching their way through a banh mi, and the day after that, downtown LA can be banh mi central. It’s the mobility that makes it awesome. And suddenly EVERYTHING in LA doesn't seem ALL that far away from EVERYTHING ELSE.

Anyone who knows me knows that I finished my oversized ACME banh mi, and in a couple of days, when I am no longer full, I will head back into the not-cereal box city, and seek out another mobile adventure.