Pho Lang Thang’s Dac Biet Bahn Mi, or the ‘special.’
A German and a Vietnamese man get a sandwich…. Sounds like the beginning to a bar joke, right? Well, it’s not. The German and Vietnamese share a love of two forced meats – head cheese and pork liver pate. It sounds like a super weird pairing to have in common, but they do – and both use them in sandwiches.
The Vietnamese call their head cheese gio thu, while the Germans call it schwartenmagen. And the Vietnamese call their pork liver pate bahn mi pate gan, while the Germans call it braunschweiger. Gio thu is made in a similar fashion to headcheese – meat from the pig’s head, including the tongue, snout, eyes, and ears. The pork liver pate is maybe a bit more garlicky than the German brauschweiger.
A closeup of Gio Thu, Vietnamese headcheese.
The Vietnamese combine the two into a dagwood type sandwich called the Dac Biet – a type of Bahn Mi sandwich that translates into ‘the special.’ In the Dac Biet sandwich, the Vienamese put the gio thu and bahn mi pate gan on a crisp French baguette with pickled vegetables, jalapenos, fish sauce, and mayonnaise.
The Germans use the pate and head cheese along with other cold cuts and nestle them in a smaller, but equally as tasty bun called a brötchen, with cucumber or pickled veggies. This is something you would see at a German breakfast bar at a hotel or for a light lunch spread – something like you’d see on the Belegte Brötchen or Brotzeitteller plates at Katharina’s in Newport, Kentucky (soon to re-open with new beer garden). The Germans would typically eat the brötchen as a breakfast or light midday meal, while the Vietnamese make a hearty meal out of the Doc Biet bahn mi.
Really the only difference between the two sandwiches is that the Vietnamese version has more spice than the German version with the jalapeno, and also has more umami flavor with its fish sauce.
In downtown Cincy, there are two good Vietnamese restaurants where you can get the Dac Biet – Pho Lang Thang, at Findlay Market, and Let’s Pho at Court Street. The first makes their own gio thu, but the second doesn’t include the head cheese/gio thu on their Dac Biet for some reason.
The window of Pho Lang Thang in Cincinnati’s historic Findlay Market.
Pho Lang Thang’s Dac Biet packs a punch with a layering of this Gio Thu (headcheese), garlicky pork liver pate, Cha Lua (steamed pork sausage), and Xa Xiu (Chinese barbecued pork). What makes the Banh Mi so tasty is the crunchy veggies that go with the meats – cucumbers, jalapeno, pickled carrots, daikon radish, and fresh cilantro. All this gets layered on a wonderful baguette and slathered with mayo, fish sauce, chili sauce, or whatever condiment you like.
The Dac Biet was born in and around the city of Saigon. Locals recall seeing it on the streets around the early 1940s in Saigon. The makeup of this sandwich – the baguette, the condiments and the meats are the legacy of French and Chinese colonialism, but the sandwich itself is fully Viet. Adopting and reimagining foreign foods is central to Vietnamese cuisine. The bahn mi melds East and West, in its juxtaposition of ingredients.
You’d think with the French influence in Viet cooking, they’d use foie gras, a goose liver pate, rather than the pork liver version. But in Vietnam, just as in most of Germany, the pig is sacred. It was used as a dowry gift at weddings, and plays a central role in the Vietnamese New Year Celebration.
Now whole roasted pigs are often served at engagement ceremonies and other celebrations. At the feast of Tet – the Viet celebration of the New Year – slices of Gio Thu are dipped in chili paste or soy sauce.
Maybe there’s a sauerkraut laden version of a Banh mi-brötchen that we will see in the near future!