5821 Charlotte Pike. 352-9399
5849 Charlotte Pike. 354-1351
Hoa Binh Market
6317 Charlotte Pike. 356-4449
By definition, "fusion cuisine" is the marriage of two different cultures and regions in one dish. When done well, it is harmonious and complementary; when done badly, as it frequently is, the results are no more appealing or appetizing than a child's mud patties. Fortunately, we are blessed with local chefs who know a thing or two about blending the distinct flavors and techniques of disparate cultures. Corey Griffith, who co-owns mAmbu with chef Anita Hartell, is a devotee of Asian-American fusion; Deb Paquette brings the Mediterranean to the table at Zola; and Martha Stamps' menu at Martha's at the Plantation modernizes traditional Southern cooking with healthy technique.
The term has been thrown around by chefs and restaurants for the last two decades, but in reality, fusion cuisine has been around for centuries, historically driven by migration, colonization, war and even famine. Look no farther than any meat-and-three in Nashville for proof; what we now know as "Southern cooking" is really the fusion of methods and techniques brought from Africa to products grown and raised on Southern plantations. According to John Egerton in his book Southern Cooking, the unique Creole cuisine emerged in pre-statehood Louisiana in the late 1700s/early 1800s, a blend of French and Spanish, African and Indian, English and American. Few modern chefs have been able to match that kind of innovation.
One of the more luminous and concordant forms of fusion cuisine can be found in local Vietnamese restaurants, whose menus bear the imprint of the French colonization of Indochina in the 18th and 19th centuries. Though the French withdrew from Vietnam in the events leading up to the Vietnam War, the reverberations of their colonial presence have lingered in the food, interpreted by home and street cooks for generations, and pursued in some of the world's finest restaurants. The Vietnamese dish banh miwhich translates, more or less, to "bread"is a splendidly simple iteration of this relationship, a beautiful love child of the two cultures.
banh mi places Vietnamese ingredients on a crusty French baguette, and when done right, the results can be spectacular. A small baguette is sliced in half lengthwise, then lightly toasted; the exterior should be so crisp that it crackles on contact with teeth, an action that looses the perfectly balanced flavors and textures of fat-pocked Vietnamese ham, roasted and seasoned pork, garlicky liver paté, pickled sweet-sour carrots, cool cucumber, refreshing cilantro and hot jalapeño peppers, tempered with a light swipe of mayonnaise on the bread.
In the 1990s, Nashville saw a sizable wave of Vietnamese immigrants, many of whom settled on Charlotte Pike, which has earned the nickname "Little Vietnam" among local food enthusiasts. Inspired by an outstanding banh mi I recently had in New Yorkwhere I serendipitously stumbled on a place called Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches in the East VillageI headed to Charlotte Pike seeking banh mi. The results were decidedly mixed, but in at least one case hardly disappointing.
As sandwich lovers know, it's the bread, stupid, a common frustration when it comes to re-creating regional specialties outside of their region. It's why cheese steaks, muffulettas and Cubans never taste quite as goodno matter how faithful the ingredientsas they do in Philly, New Orleans or Miami, their respective cities of origin.
Each of the three places I sampled had slight variations. At Pho Bac, the banh mi had several silver-dollar-sized rounds of flavorless pork tenderloin, a couple spears of peeled English cucumber, julienned carrot and daikon radish on a soft, un-toasted roll spread with mayonnaise. On the menu, it is described as a "Special French Sandwich," though there was nothing special about it. The prideful French would be mortified. It's $2.75. Go for the pho instead.
At Miss Saigon, the roll was toasted, and the filling had more life, thanks to the inclusion of cilantro and jalapeño peppers, but the barbecue sauce on the pork was odd and definitely not an improvement. The slices of green pepper smacked of Subway. The sandwich is $2.50. Miss Saigon's menu has expanded greatly since it opened, so I'd try somethinganythingelse on a return visit.
Hoa Binh Market advertises its baked-daily French bread and fresh sandwiches in large letters painted on the side of its building. At the counter of this market, which stocks groceries, produce, frozen foods and other household items imported from East Asia, the baguettes are stacked in a case, and the sandwich is made right in front of your eyes, then wrapped in a sheet of white paper and bound with a rubber band. The baguette was toasted, crusty on the exterior, soft inside. Tucked inside was one slice of processed pork roll (which I discarded), bits of fatty ham, seasoned pork slices, julienned carrots and daikon, and cucumber spears. It lacked the jalapeño and cilantro, so I used my own from home; next time I would even make a pit stop at Noshville for some chopped liver and add that on as well. The fresh bread and tasty meats elevated this particular banh mi well above the others. It is well worth seeking out on Charlotte and, prudently packed in a chilled carrier, would make excellent picnic fare for a day on the lake, or an evening at one of Centennial Park's summer entertainment opportunities. And at just $2.50, it's one of the best cheap lunches in town.
Kien Giang, Nashville's most popular Vietnamese restaurant, is temporarily closed while the family spends a month back home. When they return, it'd be worth a visit to sample the banh mi on their menu, which offers at least four varieties (at least one of which includes that key flavor of liver paté). Don't be daunted by the lack of English explanations on a couple of them; regulars will assure you that at least the No. 2 is worth sampling. For people on the other side of town, Interasian Market on Nolensville Road sells a good banh mi made to order. Aside from lacking the perfect bread, everything else that should be on the sandwich is therethe tangy carrot slow, the crisp cilantro flavor, the sweat-inducing jalapeños, the sliced meats, the unmistakable paté.