South by Southeast: D.C. master baker Mark Furstenberg puts his own chef-driven spin on the banh mi.
South by Southeast: D.C. master baker Mark Furstenberg puts his own chef-driven spin on the banh mi. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The banh mi currently on Mark Furstenberg’s menu at G Street Food has changed substantially from the one that debuted at his downtown restaurant in late September. Perhaps you haven’t noticed the changes. Perhaps you don’t even care. But I think Furstenberg’s obsessive tinkering with his Vietnamese sandwich says at least two significant things: that the master baker is rarely satisfied with his work, which helps explain the 71-year-old’s still lofty status, and that the humble banh mi is endlessly adaptable.

The latter observation is self-evident. You don’t need to go to Vietnam to notice that no two banh mi shops are the same. Just hop from one Vietnamese deli to another in Northern Virginia. You’ll find personalized touches as subtle as the homemade mayonnaise-like “butter” that Song Que slathers on its banh mi baguettes—and as obvious as the fresh, homemade breads that the employees pull from the oven at Banh Mi So 1 on the opposite end of the Eden Center in Falls Church.

All the customization, however, should not be mistaken for some sort of culinary free-for-all. The banh mi does have defining characteristics, says Mai Pham, chef/owner of Lemon Grass Restaurant in Sacramento, Calif., and a widely recognized authority on Southeast Asian cooking. One is the Vietnamese-style baguette, lighter and crustier than the French version, and another is the vegetable garnish, a pickled salad of crispy daikon and carrot strips.

There are even a few classic renditions of the sandwich in Vietnam, Pham says, none more classic than the banh mi thit nguoi. It’s the cold-cut version that features sliced ham and head cheese pressed into a baguette with pork pâté, pickled daikon and carrots, cucumber, chili peppers, cilantro, soy sauce, and seasonings. “You prize things that you normally don’t get at home [in Vietnam], and that’s ham,” Pham says. A variation on that is the banh mi thit nguoi cha lua, another popular sandwich in which crispy pork sausage is added to the standard cold-cut banh mi. From there, the variations start to get more dramatic, Pham says, and can vary widely from region to region.

It’s hard to say whether anyone in Vietnam would recognize Furstenberg’s latest interpretation of the banh mi, this explosively meaty bite loaded down with housemade pâté, sliced ham, grilled pork loin, pickled vegetables (including red pepper and cauliflower!), housemade mayonnaise, greens, and a spicy-acidic sauce, all stuffed into a wheat-flour baguette. There are no jalapeños, no sprigs of cilantro, and no head cheese. After weeks of futzing with it, Furstenberg actually seems satisfied with this version.

He didn’t start out that way. Furstenberg’s first banh mi at G Street was served on a baguette made in part with rice flour, which is consistent with the style of bread used in Vietnam and at those delis in Northern Virginia. Furstenberg wanted to incorporate rice flour into his bread for many of the same reasons that Vietnamese banh mi makers do: to create a light but crusty baguette, the perfect complement for those deli meats and pickled veggies.

But three weeks into his new venture, Furstenberg realized he could get essentially the same results with an all-wheat, poolish-style baguette, which relies on a very wet, pre-mixed starter to help provide the desired weight and texture. Truth be told, Furstenberg’s take on the Vietnamese baguette is far superior to anything wrapped around banh mi fillings in this region; golden and crackling on the outside, the bread quickly gives way to an interior of almost pure light and air. It’s a work of art.

The baguette switcheroo wasn’t even Furstenberg’s first alternation to his opening-day banh mi. During the second week of G Street’s existence, a customer told Furstenberg that his Vietnamese sandwich wasn’t “zippy enough.”

“I tasted it,” Furstenberg remembers, “and she was absolutely right. It wasn’t zippy enough.”

As Furstenberg pondered how to fix his zip-less banh mi, he was forced to reconsider his initial decision to forgo chili peppers in the sandwich. It was a tough call for Furstenberg. He had, after all, visited Vietnam in early 2007 during a trip organized by Pham, who’s also an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, the California campus where Furstenberg teaches as well. Furstenberg spent a lot of time with Southern food expert John T. Edge on the Vietnam tour.

“We both fell in love with banh mi,” Furstenberg says. “We ate as many as we could.”

Eating all those sandwiches, of course, revealed one inevitable truth: They usually include slivers of chili pepper, typically a serrano-like pepper, which are slightly hotter than jalapeños, that standard American stand-in. But when it came time to make his own banh mi, Furstenberg chose the path of heat resistance. No jalapeños for his mainstream American diners. “I was afraid to do that,” the chef confesses.

But when his banh mi was called out for its zip-free personality, Furstenberg elected to give his customers a choice. They could order the sandwich with or without jalapeños. The experiment lasted a day. Few, if any, diners asked for the peppers, which forced Furstenberg to look in another direction for zip. He decided to play with his nouc cham, the Vietnamese fish-sauce-based dressing that he sprinkles onto his sandwich.

Furstenberg’s original nouc cham was merely a mixture of fish sauce and lime juice. He pumped up that recipe with garlic, Sambal, and a little sugar to cut the hot pepper condiment. “I tasted the thing with the reconstituted sauce,” Furstenberg recalls, “and I thought it was just really better.”

Still, the chef wasn’t done tinkering. If he was happy with his baguette and nouc cham, Furstenberg wasn’t totally satisfied with the texture of his sandwich. Somewhere between the exquisite crunch of his baguette and the meaty, leathery quality of his organic pork loin and slices of Allan Benton ham, Furstenberg wanted a third texture. “We didn’t have any softness when you bit into it,” he says.

He created softness with a coarse, housemade pâté composed of chicken livers, ground pork, bacon, pork fat, eggs, five-spice powder, Cognac, and a number of other spices and aromatics. Furstenberg slathers that pâté on his baguette, transforming what has been, historically, a leanly portioned and carefully balanced sandwich into an eruption of big fatty flavors. It’s like Furstenberg has taken a few of the essential flavors of Vietnam—coriander seed, grilled pork, fish sauce—and injected them with anabolic steroids. It’s unlike anything you’ll find in Falls Church, and it’s, in all likelihood, far tastier than anything you’ll find in NoVa, too.

And yet: Despite my affection for this chef-driven banh mi, I can’t quite get over the missing cilantro, which Furstenberg refuses to use. He doesn’t care for the herb. I decide to rat out Furstenberg to Mai Pham, who says she plans to take action. “I want to challenge him a little” on the cilantro front, she says, “so at least he offers it as an option.”

G Street Food, 1706 G St. NW, (202) 408-7474

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