HAVING FAMILIARIZED myself with the Mercury archives, I'm pretty impressed with the comprehensive work of my predecessors—not too many of my old favorites have been passed over. Occasionally, of course, I come across a restaurant that has only been mentioned in passing, lumped into a roundup, or recommended on the blog. Usually, that's enough. But An Xuyen Bakery, I think, deserves a full Last Supper treatment.
If you ate at Foster Burger in its early days, you might be familiar with An Xuyen's buns (Foster Burger now uses a house-made—and sorry, inferior—brioche). But the reason to go next door—the reason I'm not satisfied relegating this little Southeast Portland hole in the wall to the Mercury's marginalia—is the banh mi.
Like Bruce Banner, banh mi is the prodigious offspring of an abusive marriage—specifically, France's colonial control over Vietnam. Local vendors put their stamp on the popular French sandwich (the kind you'd buy on the streets of Paris) with their own fillings: barbecue pork, lemongrass chicken, crushed meatballs, tofu. I don't want to be accused of condoning imperialism, but what a tasty silver lining to the brutal imposition of power.
Tucked away in a stripmall-ish parking lot on SE 54th and Foster, An Xuyen looks, from the outside, more utilitarian than artful (maybe it's the addition of "Inc." to the end of their name). A maroon awning overhangs two patio tables when the weather's nice, but that's the only seating to be found. Inside, the shelves are lined with cookies, Hawaiian sweet breads, and pastries. Behind a glass display case of decorated cakes and fruit tarts, there's an impressive selection of Hello Kitty ephemera. Ignore all that for now, and direct your attention to the fast-food style menu displayed behind the cash register.
There are about a dozen sandwich variations to choose from, but all follow the same basic formula: a protein, pickled carrots, daikon radish, cucumber, cilantro, and jalapeño. My favorite—and now I know how Sophie felt—is probably the lemongrass pork. The meat is succulent, and the lemongrass brings out a subtle citrus and ginger flavor that pairs nicely with the accoutrements. As far as cold options, I like the ham and pâté combination (though, when I ordered the pâté banh mi alone, it was a little bit lacking).
Vegetarians can choose from a tofu option or a "vege-meat." I preferred the former—it's firm tofu, heavily seasoned, and didn't make me long too much for the grilled pork I'm accustomed to. The "vege-meat" wasn't for me—there's an overpowering sweetness to it, something like cinnamon and nutmeg—but someone more likely to order veggie patties in lieu of burgers might feel differently.
The difference between An Xuyen and lesser banh mi is most apparent in the bread. It's crisp on the outside, but soft and pillowy just below the surface. It's not just a vehicle for what comes inside (though it serves that purpose and then some) but a treat all on its own. The competition—Best Baguette, Binh Minh Bakery, and Lanvin—all serve decent sandwiches worth your dollar, but fail to make the same great first impression when it comes time for your teeth to tear through the flaky exterior.
I've ordered similar sandwiches at a couple of our venerable—but not banh-mi specific—sandwich joints, and felt okay about spending $8 to $10. It was the going price for a meal in both instances, and not outlandish. Or didn't seem so until I returned to An Xuyen and remembered that I could buy four banh mi for that same price. That's probably why I have a tendency to order feverishly. I must subconsciously believe that the prices are unsustainable, and on my next visit I'll find boarded-up windows. I must look like someone rushing to fill their bomb shelter before the big one hits, or a customer on one of those furniture-warehouse-liquidation-sale commercials that can't fathom the low prices.
I keep adding to my order: steamed buns (75 cents-$1.49) filled with barbecued pork or coconut cream, fat loaves of Oregon hazelnut bread ($2.49), and any of the oversized and ridiculously cheap pastries I'm not necessarily craving but, I mean, a whole cheesecake for under $4? Why the hell not. It's not something I'm proud of—not something I'd want you to witness—but when I'm sitting in my parked car, gorging myself and brushing bread flakes from my lap, it's just too damn easy to justify my behavior.