Could it be the bread? Crunchy and flaky or soft and spongy, bread is much more than a vessel to transport meat and cheese to your mouth hole.
Take a hike, vegetables.
Could it even be the condiments, ranging from salty, fruity olive spread to fiery Sriracha sauce?
There’s nothing wrong with peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese. But sometimes it pays to expand your horizons. To truly reach a higher plane of sandwich existence, let’s take a look at a head-to-head battle between two titans of the sandwich world—the Italian cold cut and the Vietnamese banh mi.
Along the way we’ll find out what really makes a great sandwich—because the first step to improving your life is improving your sandwich knowledge.
Big, Beautiful Banh Mi
Part French, part Vietnamese, this biracial badass has been satisfying hungry mouths since the 1800s. The banh mi is a beautiful love-child of the French desperately trying to import their way of life into a humid, crotch-rotting country with zero refrigeration, where bread grows mold before it’s even out of the oven.
Despite a lack of real cheese and real beef, France proved why they’re one of the greatest civilizations on the planet and gave it a good ol’ college try.
The modern descendant of those Nobel-worthy efforts is what you see above—a hodgepog of “let’s just see if it works” miscellania that you happen to have lying around the kitchen.
Your typical street banh mi in Saigon is simple, but has several variations. You’ll be given a choice of meat, which could be fried eggs in the morning (op la), rotisserie pork (heo quay), a type of Vietnamese bologna (cha lua), fish sausage (cha ca), or sometimes grilled pork (thit nuong).
Or go full hog and go for a banh mi dac biet, or deluxe.
NoteDac biet can be tacked on to just about anything, FYI. Hotel rooms, soup, taxis—the sky’s the limit.
From there, the choice of toppings is up to you. Most banh mi come with cilantro, cucumbers, pickled carrots and pickled daikon radishes, chilis and hot sauce as a bare minimum. But don’t stop there, sub-slayer; you’re also mere seconds away from enjoying a sandwich slathered in creamy, rich pâté, mayo, “cheese,” soy sauce, and whatever else the seller could find lying around.
Banh mi rolls are explosively crisp with a chewy interior. With every bite, you’ll cover yourself in dry, crusty shrapnel, while simultaneously jettisoning bits of meat, sauce and vegetables as you struggle to gnaw through the baguette.
For that reason, banh mi are best enjoyed in the privacy of your own home.
And why are banh mi delicious?
Because no matter how much crap you manage to pile on your sub, the combination of textures and flavors always seems perfectly balanced.
Take the one pictured above, for example. I made it with:
- Vietnamese bologna
- Fried duck eggs
- Chrysanthemum greens
- And…Sriracha sauce.
I also hollowed out the inside of the roll to fit more meat. It’s a hot, beautiful mess and it tasted fantastic.
When constructing your very own banh mi at home, I think the most crucial step is finding a better baguette than the typical street food version. Like I said, the average banh mi roll is poorly suited for sub-making. Instead, build your banh mi on a bakery-fresh roll that’s either crispy or springy, never both.
Personally I find the combination of mayo, cheese AND pâté to be nauseatingly rich. That’s why I suggest picking 2 of the 3.
Killer Italian Cold Cuts
Cold cuts have gradually transformed from a sandwich masterpiece into a disgusting peasant sub made with plastic-wrapped American cheese and watery low-fat ham.
Real cold cuts are of the Italian variety. That means using meat soooo fatty, each slice of bread needs its own safe space. That means using cheese the average person can’t pronounce. And that means using bread so substantial, you need a backhoe to dig through it.
And while Italian cold cuts are great, wouldn’t something called “The Old World Italian” be even better?
What’s under the hood, you ask? What about stacks of soppressata, capicola, prosciutto, fontinella (fontina?) cheese, and a thick, satisfying olive spread?
It’s a good start, but can we serve up all of that on an entire loaf of bread, the kind with so much flour residue that you’ll look like a coke fiend when you’re finished eating?
You bet your ass we can—at DiPasquale’s in Baltimore, at least.
The DiPasquale’s Difference is that they embrace greed, but in a positive, quintessentially American kind of way.
Think you can finish our lasagna? You can try, fatass. Ordering the Super Italian Cold Cut for one person? Here’s a box, because you’re NEVER gonna finish that in one sitting but BY THE WAY here’s our dessert menu, you corpulent, gorgeous poster boy for American excess.
I mean, look at this work of art.
If it looks like there’s barely any meat on that bad boy, I assure you it’s an optical illusion—that’s a whole loaf of oven-fresh bread, and it’s likely packing a pound of meat and cheese.
Now, is DiPasquale’s Old World Italian what you should expect on average when you order a cold cut?
Just like my Frankenstein banh mi above, this cold cut isn’t the norm—rather, it’s a testament to the greatness that a simple sandwich can achieve.
This is the Sistine Chapel of cold cuts, except the Pope would probably have enjoyed this a little bit more.
The cold cut is a fantastic sandwich because we don’t need to waste time with vegetables or herbs or secret sauces—cold cuts are successful because they drop a bunker-buster of salty, oily meat and cheese on your mouth-parts without so much as a Hello.
It’s the Italian Way, and there’s NOTHING more American than Italian food.
Stranded on an Island—Which Sub Do You Choose?
Banh mi and cold cuts are both apex predators in the sandwich world. There’s no best sandwich, and I won’t put a gun to your head and make you pick one.
But it’s clear each sub is popular for different reasons. Banh mi are a delicate balance of savory meat and fresh herbs, hot chilis and cool pickled vegetables, bread both chewy and crisp. Cold cuts are an unapologetic payload of protein, fat and salt.
It only proves that there’s no secret formula for making a great sandwich. Just throw a bunch of delicious stuff together, slap it on some bread, and shovel it down—no recipes or planning required.
DiPasquale’s Italian Marketplace
3700 Gough Street, Baltimore, MD