The determinedly lunch-bucket look is a nod to the Vietnamese street-vendor roots of the thing. But the fact is that its full pedigree is as complex, really, as its layers of flavor and levels of crunch, its play of textures and its hot-then-cold microclimates.
It's a durable hybrid, half-French from the days when France colonized Indochina, accounting for its traditional construction on a heated baguette (banh mi means roll or baguette), infused with a buttery mayonnaise and loose goose or pork pate. The typical Asian touch is the head-cheese lunchmeat, the spiced, barbecued pork, the pickled shred of carrot, the hot chile, and feathery cilantro, licorice-y Thai basil and mint.
You want showy from the Sampan menu? Order the "Peking" duck with tamarind pancakes, or the zany redo of a Philly cheesesteak - juicy short rib heaped on fried discs of bao bun, spicy sriracha slashing below.
But if you want a sandwich that's one of the wonders of the sandwich world, go for the banh mi - a handful of lightly pickled vegetables and supporting cast of meats on a toasty roll (in Sampan's case, from Artisan Boulanger, the understated Cambodian-French hybrid of a bakery at 12th and Morris).
In their first South Philadelphia sightings (by non-Asians) in the Vietnamese enclaves that sprang up after the war in Southeast Asia, they were a paradigm shift: more salad than meat. More shapes - airy shreds and spears and spreads to lighten the density. More contrasts - vinegars and fish sauce, sweet mayos and garlicky meats - than the sandwich they were first compared to.
They debuted as "Vietnamese hoagies," $2.25, on Sarcone's rolls. My favorite, circa 1995 (and still in the top three)? Cafe Huong Lan's at Eighth and Washington Avenue.
Schulson, who eventually added Buddakan New York and Izakaya, the moody Japanese pub at Atlantic City's Borgata Hotel, to his resumé, had his own first taste while researching the menu for the original Old City Buddakan more than 10 years ago in the sprawling Asian plazas below the Italian Market. (If the Italian hoagie loaded up on heavy salami and cheese, the Vietnamese hoagie leaned on lighter vegetables and fragrant herbs.)
Its momentum picked up gradually: You can find prewrapped versions now at Flying Monkey, the bakery at 11th and Locust. Chinatown didn't get an outpost until a year ago - a hole in the wall called Q.T. Vietnamese Sandwich, between Market and Arch, that has sublime crackling-crusted rolls stuffed with rustic pork loaf reminiscent of French country pate, or for vegetarians, lemongrass tofu. In New York, gringoes eager for a piece of the action started packing the sandwiches with whatever; fluke, or lobster, or king crab.
It was only a matter of time - as with the Korean taco and Indian pizza - that banh mi would dip a toe in the mainstream, first at Jose Garces' Latin-Asian Chifa; now Sampan.
Schulson says he was looking for a more restrained approach - to enhance the banh mi, not reimagine it. So the 24-hour marinated (in lemongrass, ginger, and garlic) pork belly becomes the "barbecue pork" of tradition. The shredded carrots, cucumber, and jalapeno are sliced thin and pickled all together in order to eliminate the hot spots caused by biting into hunks of sliced chile. A mild rice vinegar substitutes for the sharper white vinegar some shops use. And in place of the mayonnaise, Sampan uses a tangy aoli spiked with chile, garlic, and ginger.
So his foot-long banh mi ($9) is true to its origins, its robust street-vendor attitude curbed slightly, but unmistakably redolent of its French-Vietnamese parentage.
At the end of the day, it still beckons to Michael Schulson: "It's the one thing I eat every night," he says, "before I go home."
124 S. 13th St.
Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.