“I grew up in Vietnam,” said Quang Pham, the owner of Lu’s Sandwiches. “Every morning my mom used to take me to school on the back of her motorcycle. We’d stop at the farmers’ market on the way there, where I’d go get my banh mi for lunch later.”
Quang and his family moved to Minnesota when he was 13 years old. His mom upgraded to a sedan, and he continued on through school only to wind up getting ensnared in the world of corporate finance. “My world was full of spreadsheets, and I was wedged in a cubicle every day. That’s no way to live,” said Quang. “I wanted to do something hands-on and meaningful with my business degree.”
Fortunately, Quang’s mother Tuyet had a skill set far more valuable than his own: making banh mi sandwiches. They decided to go into business together, with her running the kitchen, and him answering requests to be interviewed by nosy magazine writers. Now they run two Lu’s Sandwiches locations in South and Northeast Minneapolis, as well as a food truck.
“Those mornings at the farmers’ market are a good memory,” said Quang. “I get to share that memory by making amazing banh mis in restaurants decorated with a Vietnamese flare. My family came here in 2000 with nothing, but with hard work and passion we have created something we love, and a lot of other people love too. We couldn’t be more grateful for that opportunity which America has given us.”
“A banh mi is the ultimate fusion of Western and Eastern cuisine,” explained Quang. “We start with a Vietnamese baguette, which is crispier and airier than a French one. Then we slather it in creamy mayonnaise and pâté, add our own homemade chicken, beef, pork, meatballs, cold cuts, tofu, or mock duck, garnish it with things like cilantro, jalapeños, and daikon, and top it off with traditional pickled carrots to give it its signature crunch.”
“At first, I was a little worried that Minnesotans might not embrace something so unfamiliar,” Quang confessed. “A lot of people balk when they learn that pâté is made from liver. But it’s still a sandwich, and a damned good one at that. Fortunately, Minnesotans are always game to give something new a try.”
“And one try is all it takes with our banh mis.”
I’ve always believed dearly in the momentousness of journalistic integrity. When this line of work demands that you go eat a sandwich, you answer the call. I took my clan to Lu’s at their Northeast location, where we set upon a pile of banh mis like a pack of crazed beasts. Lu’s sandwiches are simply perfect: crunch giving way to fluff giving way to meatiness giving way to crunch yet again. I had delicious cold cuts. My dad had meatballs, because he is from Jersey and believes that they are as requisite to a sandwich’s construction as the bread itself. My gluten allergic girlfriend had a rice bowl, drizzled in lemony, garlicky fish sauce. We rounded the meal out with Vietnamese iced coffees, made with chicory-laced Cafe Du Monde and sweet as syrup. Everything was marvelous, even though we argued about politics the whole time and I’d forgotten my wallet.
If you’ve never had a banh mi before and aren’t sure you’ll like it, I recommend The Lulicious Banh Mi Sandwich Challenge, a chaste two foot long sandwich with about a pound and a half of delicious meat and all the fixings. If you eat the whole thing within 25 minutes, you not only get a complimentary “Banh Mi Master” T-shirt, but the sandwich is free too, so there’s no real commitment.
The beauty of a banh mi is that it shows how well two cultures can intermingle, provided they do so in the form of a sandwich. We may have been able to avoid World War I completely had the British and Germans only collaborated to concoct some kipper-sauerkraut monstrosity, and perhaps North Korea and South Korea could have started getting on the same page a lot sooner had they only married their radically different cuisines between two slices of bread as well.
This may be far-fetched. It’s possible that sandwiches aren’t the solution for world peace. They are certainly the answer to what you should be eating, though, and Lu’s tops that list.
By David Scheller