Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013 12:00 am
It’s taking America by storm. The banh mi, essentially a Vietnamese submarine, inspires articles like “Are banh mi becoming America’s favorite sandwich?” in major food publications. The New York Times prints a piece rating NYC’s best banh mi shops throughout its five boroughs. But Springfield hasn’t had the opportunity to discover what chef-turned-television-travel-host Anthony Bourdain calls “a symphony in a sandwich.”
Hasn’t, that is, until the Jujobee Café opened two months ago.
Historians rightly regard the French colonization of Southeast Asia during the 19th and 20th centuries negatively, an institution that oppressed the native peoples under its control. But French colonization had some positive consequences. Perhaps the best was an intermingling of French and native cuisines; its most emblematic creation the banh mi sandwich.
Banh mi are found throughout French Indochina Southeast Asia, but are mostly closely associated with Vietnam, where they were first introduced in the early 20th century. Initially banh mi were simply Parisian baguettes spread with a bit of butter and filled with a traditionally minimal amount of ham or paté.
“Then, the Saigonese made things interesting,” says Vietnamese food writer and historian Andrea Nguyen quoted in a The New York Times 2009 article, “Building on Layers of Tradition.” She is “referring to the riot of garnishes that lifts the sandwich from good to genius,” according to the article’s author, Julia Moskin. “[Banh mi] are so rich in history, complex in flavor and full of contradictions that they make other sandwiches look dumb.”
When I first walked into Jujobee Café, I was prepared for disappointment. I had my first banh mi years ago at Number One Sandwich Shop in St. Louis. Since then I’ve eaten them in Chicago and New York as well. Some, including those at that St. Louis shop, were fantastic, others were mediocre at best. I’ve frequently made them myself; in fact, banh mi have become my standard road-food for long car trips.
But Jujobee (pronounced joo-joe-BEE) didn’t disappoint. In fact, their banh mi are among the very best I’ve had. The baguette was a perfect rendition of the exceptionally crusty, exceptionally light Vietnamese version of France’s iconic bread. The fillings were a perfectly seasoned balance of traditional French-inspired Vietnamese charcuterie and condiments, indeed, “a symphony of a sandwich.”
Surprisingly, Jujobee Café’s owner, Tuyen Nguyen, didn’t initially plan to serve banh mi. “I’m a juicer,” she tells me. “I wanted to open an organic juice bar. But then I decided we’d need something to eat with the juices, smoothies and Boba drinks (Vietnamese bubble teas) I’d serve. Banh mi were the logical choice.”
Having determined to offer Vietnam’s classic (and only) sandwich, Tuyen, who came to Springfield with her family from Vietnam in 2000, wanted Jujobee’s banh mi to be as authentic as possible. And that presented a problem: the bread. “The Vietnamese dedication to excellent, fresh baguettes is total,” Moskin says in her TNYT article. “Using stale bread is the gravest offense a maker of banh mi can commit. …to run a banh mi shop is to race against death.” Tuyen could source authentic Vietnamese charcuterie (a French term that includes sausages, cured meats, patés, etc.) in St. Louis. She could get Vietnamese baguettes there as well. But there was no way to keep St. Louis bread fresh enough to deliver the characteristic crunchy crust and light tender crumb essential to authentic and outstanding banh mi baguettes.
Enter Tuyen’s younger brother, Hau. 20-year-old Hau says he was “basically a bum.” He didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. “I only knew that I wanted to do something in the food industry,” he says. Hau worked at various jobs “to help out the family,” including stints at Wal-Mart making sushi and at Jimmy John’s.
“Then my mom said, ‘Why not learn to make bread?’” Hau says. He could have apprenticed at a French or Vietnamese bakery in America. Instead he journeyed to Vietnam for what turned out to be lessons not only about making traditional Vietnamese bread, but also about life. And he developed a passion for baking bread. Part of Hau’s Vietnamese bread-baking journey was spent in a (relatively) large commercial bakery. But he found his mentor – and that passion – in the small farming village where his grandparents live, an hour north of Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). The one-man bakery had an earth oven fueled with cashew shells. “Just me getting to that tiny bakery – I’d call it a miracle,” he says.
At first glance, his mentor didn’t think much of him, Hau says. “But I told him I’m not doing this for the money. I’m doing it so that people will remember me and my bread. I want my standard to be as high as possible. I showed up everyday and asked questions. So I impressed him, and he taught me everything he knew.”
But while Hau’s mentor taught him all the steps of baguette-making, he was never allowed to make bread from start to finish. Back in America, he had to put all those steps together, and do so with different flours, a different oven, and in very short order. Hau returned to Springfield three months before the café opened. But Jujobee’s kitchen and oven became operational only three days before its planned opening. For those three days, Tuyen, Hau, their younger sister, Binh, and mother, Than, got no sleep as the women painted and decorated, and Hau experimented with the convection oven. “I threw away a lot of bread at first,” he says. “I basically created my own technique and recipe.” It took two weeks before Hau was satisfied with his baguettes. Even so, his recipe varies slightly with weather conditions, especially humidity, and contains a mix of what Hau calls “good and bad” flours, aka high and low gluten flours. These days, many Vietnamese bakers add a bit of rice flour to the dough to lighten it. But in the past, wheat flour alone was used; only the most traditional bakers still use only wheat flour. Hau follows that tradition.
That distinctively crunchy crust first told me Jujobee’s banh mi would be exceptional, even before my teeth hit the fillings. But the fillings are spot on, too. Tuyen and Hau even make their own mayonnaise. Banh mi meats vary by region and individual makers; Jacqueline Pham’s Banh Mi cookbook has 75 different filling recipes. Jujobee’s fillings are Saigon traditions: a smear of spreadable paté, thin slices of pork “meatloaf” and headcheese (it’s listed as “pork skin,” but don’t let that put you off; it’s just a type of lunch meat.) Other options included barbecue chicken or pork and grilled pork pattie. While those are accurate descriptions, it should be noted that they’re not grilled or barbecued American-style. There’s also a vegan version that has just 260 calories. None are spicy-hot, unless sliced jalapenos are added.
Fresh ingredients are integral to Vietnamese cuisine, and banh mi are no exception. Crunchy “condiments” such as pickled carrot and daikon, cucumber and fresh herbs are actually equal partners rather than mere enhancements of the meats.
Jujobee also offers several versions of Vietnam’s classic soup, pho (pronounced “fuh”), and a pork broth-based soup containing fat, unctuous tapioca noodles. The clear, delicate broths are made in-house, simmering for at least eight hours. There are also salads, made with a deliciously light, almost fat-free dressing of fresh pineapple, apples, celery, carrots, ginger, lime juice and the barest touch of housemade mayonnaise. They also make the best Vietnamese coffee I’ve ever had. The expensive brand they use is unavailable in America; family members back home send it to them.
Jujobee Café is located in a strip mall just west of Iles and Koke Mill, next to Le Peep Restaurant. Give it a try; I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. But be forewarned: Jujobee’s banh mi are addictive!
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.