When we lived in San Antonio, my absolute favorite restaurant meal was a tofu banh mi ordered at the walk-up window of a small kitchen that had been fashioned from a repurposed shipping container and dubbed “The Luxury.”
Paired with near perfect French fries or a mouselike chocolate pudding (or sometimes both), this meal was a spectacular tangle of salty, crispy, spicy and sweet.
Months after we moved away, I heard that the restaurant was slammed for storing food in the men’s bathroom. That’s disgusting, obviously, but had it happened while we still lived there, I honestly don’t know if it would have been enough to keep me away. The banh mi was just that good.
Since then, I’ve resorted to making my own banh mi, which are Vietnamese sandwiches usually stuffed with herbs, pickled vegetables and a slather of mayonnaise.
They’ve become a family favorite and a regular part of our dinner rotation. Paul and I don’t always share the same taste in food, but we both love these.
If you get bored with vegetarian sandwiches that seem like mere afterthoughts, you will probably love them too. They could easily be made vegan by subbing in a mock mayonnaise.
This recipe makes more pickled vegetables than you’ll need for the banh mi, but it’s not hard to find uses for the leftovers. The pickled red onions are especially good on tacos and I also like them stirred into potato salad.
If you don’t have red onions, you can use white or yellow onions instead, but the red ones turn a beautiful rosy hue and are definitely my first choice. You could also replace some of the carrots with daikon, if you have it.
Be patient with the tofu. It takes a while to crisp up but the end result is totally worth it.
These Vietnamese-style vegetarian sandwiches are loaded with great flavors and textures thanks to quick-pickled vegetables, spicy mayonnaise and loads of fresh herbs.
Slip leftover pickles into tacos, salads or anything else that could use a little perking up.
- 2 tablespoons neutral vegetable oil
- One 14-ounce block of extra-firm tofu
- 3/4 cup cilantro
- 1/4 cup mint
- 1/4 cup basil (preferably Thai, but Italian will do)
- one small cucumber
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 3/4 tsp Sriracha (or more, to taste)
- about 24" of baguette, four 6"club rolls or other bread/rolls with a crisp exterior and a soft interior
- Two clean pint jars with lids (I use empty peanut butter jars)
- 1/2 large red onion
- 4 medium-sized carrots
- 1 cup water
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 cups rice vinegar
Thinly slice the red onion into half moons. Pack them into one of the jars.
Use a vegetable peeler to cut the carrot into thin strips. Pack the carrot strips into the other jar.
In a small saucepan, combine the water, sugar and salt, and cook over medium heat just until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat, stir in the vinegar and then pour the brine over the onions and carrots, dividing it evenly between the two jars.
Push down any bits of carrot or onion that are peeking up out of the brine so that the vegetables are completely submerged. Cover with the lids and leave for at least 30 minutes before using.
Just before using, remove the pickles from the brine and drain briefly on a paper towel to keep the sandwiches from getting soggy.
Stored in the refrigerator, the pickled vegetables will keep for at least one week.
Drain the tofu and slice it into large batons. I usually go for 12 pieces per brick of tofu, or three per sandwich. Use a paper towel or clean dishtowel to pat the tofu pieces dry.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Carefully place the tofu in the pan (it might spatter) and cook until crispy on the bottom. Flip, and continue to cook until crispy and golden brown on both sides. It can take up to 20-30 minutes before both sides are crisp — be patient.
While the tofu is browning, mix the Sriracha into the mayonnaise and set aside. Wash and dry the herbs. Use a vegetable peeler to cut the cucumber into thin strips, discarding the seedy core.
Slice the bread in half lengthwise to make top and bottom portions. If using a baguette, also slice it into four roughly 6" pieces. Sometimes I also like to pull out a little of the baguette/roll insides to make more room for the sandwich fillings. Warm the bread in an oven for a few minutes.
When the tofu is crispy and brown, transfer it to a plate lined with paper towels and allow it to drain for just a moment.
Slather the cut sides of the warm bread with Sriracha mayonnaise, add the crispy tofu and top with pickled onions, pickled carrots, cucumber strips and more herbs than seems reasonable. Devour.