(This is one in a series of posts about the changing face of Kingsway).
I really can’t think of any dish that packs the bang-for-the-buck of banh mi. They could charge $7 to $10 a piece for these things downtown and no one would bat an eye. But here on Kingsway, the headwaters of authentic Vietnamese food in Vancouver, these extravagant foot long sandwiches go for a mere $3 a pop – the best deal for lunch in town.
For the un-initiated, banh mi (often called Vietnamese subs), are the colonial love-child of French cuisine and the Vietnamese palate. During their rule over what was then called Indochina, the French brought their baguette, mayonnaise, pâté and charcuterie to Vietnam where these ingredients evolved and adapted to take on more Asian flavours. The baguette formula changed to incorporate rice flour – mostly to lighten the crumb but also to help combat the humidity and help prolong the crispness of the crust. The French pâté was re-invented with the addition garlic; charcuterie which mostly kept its form, took on the flavours of the indigenous Chinese cuisine.
The ideal banh mi is a feat of alchemy: a bun with a impossibly crackling crust and soft airy crumb encases a filling comprised of a tangy shredded daikon pickle, charcuterie, mayo, and pate all co-existing in a fine balance of tart and savoury.
You will find modern versions in food carts and restaurants all over town – porchetta, pulled-pork, roast duck, and (lord help us) vegetarian fillings are the norm. But if you want the real deal, to eat the template upon which these improvisations (and abominations) were cast – you need to go to Kingsway where you will find three of the best banh mi joints in town all within walking distance from each other.
About three years ago, Ba Le upgraded their banh mi operation to include a bank of imported French baguette ovens from Revert. Prior to this, they sourced their buns from Empress Bakery located kitty corner from them on Kingsway at Fraser. The new control and capability afforded by their own ovens pushed them to the top of my personal banh mi list. On a good day their baguettes are virtually perfect – deep diagonal gashes adorn crispy brown buns – a deeper shade of brown than those of their competitors. The crumb is slightly more dense – closer to the texture of traditional French baguette than the airy Vietnamese norm. Their charcuterie is also quite good – especially their Vietnamese rolled bacon which they put in their “#8″.
Tung Hing Bakery
Tung Hing Bakery – an outpost of a Toronto-area chain has long been a local favourite, topping “Best of” lists in various publications for the last number of years. Their banh mi operation is actually a sideline to their main business of baking. Like at Ba Le, having a baguette oven in-house provides Tung Hing with a distinct advantage over most banh mi joints – their baguettes are one of the top two in town. A well timed lunch run to Tung Hing will reward you with a perfectly crispy bun – often just out of the oven – filled with top quality house made fillings: char sui (Chinese BBQ pork), cha lua (a Vietnamese force-meat resembling mortadella). One notable ingredient is their shocking yellow mayonnaise – a blend of mayo and butter. While you are here, have a look at their Chinese pastries – their banana fritter (banh choui chien) is worth the extra calories.
Even if you have never been into Kim Chau, chances are you have eaten some of their products. They are the biggest and most successful Vietnamese charcuteries in town and are a primary source of deli meats and meatballs of various types for most of Vancouver’s Vietnamese cafes and restaurants. Their awkwardly located banh mi counter at the front of the store, serves sandwiches that rival those of Tung Hing and Ba Le. If they have an achilles heel, it is in their bread which is sourced from Empress Bakery (also the source for the majority of the Vietnamese cafes and restaurants in town). The bread is fine, but it has a generic quality to them. The buns do not approach the level of quality that Ba Le and Tung Hing have managed to achieve using their own ovens.
In December 2011, the City of Vancouver moved forward with the official rebranding the section of Kingsway from Fraser and Nanaimo to “Little Saigon”. But as we are seeing in “Little India”, that section of Main Street, the rebranding might soon prove to be irrelevant. Little India (“The Punjabi Market” as it is officially called) is a pale shadow of its former self. Once bustling with Indian spice and saree stores, this strip has given way to the forces of gentrification and demographics that have been creeping eastward and southwards over the last decade. Many of the Indian businesses have moved to Surrey or to the new “Little India” – that section of Fraser street (which some are calling “the new Main Street”) just south of the cemetery.
The East Side is changing in complexion (literally and figuratively) and its dining scene is changing along with it. The demographic shift really haven’t reached a tipping point on Kingsway yet, but with the real-estate developers are scratching at the door you can already see some of the effects. At Kim Chau, the woman serving us perceived the recent changes in demography as positive. “You mostly saw Asians shopping here a few years ago,” she said. “Now there are more and more white people.”
What will happen to Kingsway when it finally experiences the halo effect of Main Street’s gentrification? Established businesses like Ba Le, Tung Hing, and Kim Chau – most of whom operate in low density premises – will not die…but surely – as the Main Street example has shown us, many of them will just go away.