Chef Tim McKee might have had the best sandwich of his life this weekend.
He sang the praises of a barbeque pork banh mi sandwich from Ha Tien Market—a small grocer in what is now branded the Little Mekong District of St. Paul’s University Avenue—via a tweet, calling it “ridiculously good.”
That’s high praise from a very high source: Chef McKee is a current James Beard Outstanding Chef Semi-Finalist (PDF) and past Best Chef Midwest winner, and an obvious tastemaker who has influenced many of the best chefs and restaurants in town.
What made it so good? Well, a traditionally great banh mi sandwich relies on multiple facets: a crusty yet chewy baguette with a light, airy center, fresh herbs, pickled daikon and carrots for a bit of twang, mayonnaise and pate for richness, and in this case, red barbequed pork, salty and meaty, as the star of the show. It’s a complex sandwich that has become popular across the country, with some excellent local examples—St. Paul’s iPho and Trung Nam French Bakery usually garnering most of the foodie accolades.
The first thing one notices about the Ha Tien banh mi is heft. This is a large sandwich with impressive amounts of barbequed char siu pork, glistening red, and charred crisp. Beyond that, the sandwich resembles other quality banh mis with one distinct exception—the “juice.” Ha Tien offers its customers a wet sandwich ladled with a soy-based pork sauce, thin and flecked with bits of ground pork. The sauce adds richness and flavor and makes for a sloppy and ultimately satisfying meal. Is this the best banh mi in town? It certainly could be.
Two potential axioms we can take away from this: When top chefs who nearly never tweet adoringly mention local sandwiches, make haste! And in life, when asked if you want “the juice,” the answer is always yes.
353 University Ave W, St. Paul