09 July 2012

Beer and bánh mì

Rodney might be Hoosier Beer Geek's beer and food pairing maven, but the rest of us occasionally try our hand at coupling good beer and food. Last Saturday, I decided to test what might be considered an unconventional pairing: Cantillon Gueuze and bánh mì.

Until Twenty Tap opened last year, I'd never had bánh mì, which is a type of French bread sandwich brought here by Vietnamese immigrants. Twenty Tap has a vegan version of the bánh mì on its menu, which I had at the pub during my second visit. Traditional bánh mì toppings include mayonnaise, pickled carrots and daikon radishes, cucumbers, fresh jalapeño peppers, and sprigs of fresh cilantro. In addition to these toppings, my Twenty Tap bánh mì had smoked tofu on it. But the classic bánh mì contains meat--usually pork, such as grilled pork belly or pork liver pâté.

Twenty Tap's bánh mì is excellent, but I'd been wanting to try a sandwich from one of the Vietnamese restaurants in the Lafayette Square area. This area fell on hard times during the last decade; many of the area's strip malls emptied out. But in recent years, this part of the city has seen a proliferation of ethnic restaurants, which have filled many of the strip mall vacancies. These establishments serve inexpensive and delicious food, ranging from Latin American dishes to Asian cuisines of different sorts. Earlier this year, the New York Times even ran a piece on the area. For bánh mì, I knew of two options in Lafayette Square: Saigon and K&T Deli. I opted for K&T Deli because they do carry-out service.

The restaurant itself is compact; my guess is that it seats 20 people at most. I ordered at the counter, but you can also opt for table service as some other diners were doing when I arrived. The menu is small as well, offering several varieties of bánh mì, pho, and rice dishes. The most popular bánh mì at K&T is the #1, which is the pork bánh mì. I opted for the #7, the bánh mì chay, which is the vegetarian sandwich. It was filled with fried tofu strips and the traditional toppings I mentioned above. Though the service was slow (it took me about 20 minutes to get my sandwich because one server was helping all 10 patrons in the restaurant), the server was very friendly, and the sandwich was only $3.50.

Upon arriving back home, I knew that I wanted to pair my sandwich with a beer, but I didn't initially know which beer I was going to pair it with. As much as I hate to admit it, I'm pretty much flying in the dark when it comes to pairing beer with food. I had a Cantillon Gueuze in the fridge and I figured, "Hey, strong flavors go with strong flavors, right?" So that's the beer I chose, though I had doubts as to whether the pairing would work.

But first, I wanted to try the bánh mì by itself. As I anticipated, the sandwich was hugely flavorful, a nice melding of the sweetness of the cilantro and pickled carrots, the spiciness of the radishes and jalapeños, and the saltiness of the tofu and mayonnaise. Any bánh mì fan will tell you how important the bread is to the sandwich; it should be slightly crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. K&T Deli's bread was just that.

Then it was time for the beer and the sandwich together. Cantillon is regarded as an exemplary gueuze, and it certainly has the characteristics you would expect out of a good gueuze: moderate to heavy tartness, oak notes, and maybe a bit of citrus, apple, and funk in the flavor. When I followed a bite of the bánh mì with a sip of beer, the tartness of the beer provided a nice interplay with the spice and salt of the sandwich. The cilantro and the carrots in the bánh mì became pronounced, as did the oak and citrus characters of the beer. I loved the combination, though I wondered whether others would too. Perhaps those of you who are cicerones can tell me whether I was crazy for trying this pairing.

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