Today’s sandwich is the “Special Combination” banh mi from Kim’s Gift Shop. It combines three types of meat, with daikon radish, cucumbers, carrots, and lots of fresh cilantro. The roll is also dressed with mayonnaise and liver pate.
Location: 261 St. John Street
Notes: Since we’ve been away from the United States for so long, we confess that we have almost completely missed out on the banh mi craze, that venerable Vietnamese sandwich creation that is served all over big cities with significant Vietnamese populations, sometimes from high-end customized food trucks, marketed on Twitter and piloted by young, model-beautiful Vietnamese entrepreneurs, and sometimes from the backs of dodgy back-alley Vietnamese markets, where ancient old men simultaneously smoke cigarettes and slurp noodles perched atop stacks of old newspapers.
Kim’s Gift Shop balances itself somewhere between these two extremes of banh mi kitchens. From an unassuming storefront on an endlessly depressing section of St. John Street, Kim’s is (perhaps conveniently, depending on what you’re into) sandwiched between a head shop and a tattoo studio, and across the street from a nearly-abandoned, post-apocalyptic Subway (“Would you like some French Onion Sun Chips, a white chocolate macadamia nut Otis Spunkmeyer cookie, or a punch in the face?”). Hand-painted signage on the front window announces that Kim’s sells “Parisian Sandwiches,” in addition to their collection of Vietnamese magazines, DVDs, and t-shirts.
We were very warmly greeted by owner Kim Tran, who chatted with family while we perused the menu. I am completely tickled by the notion of banh mi, but haven’t really sampled enough to know the difference between one that is executed very well, and one that isn’t. This is the sandwich of occupation, and indeed, began in a much simpler form, when France occupied Vietnam during World War II. The French brought their baguettes, and, probably, cured meats and mayonnaise, and the Vietnamese took over from there, working hard to ingratiate themselves by creating a combination fusion sandwich sure to appeal to a cartoonish, Pepé Le Pew notion of the French palate: A dab of mayonnaise, some cured meat, a swipe of liver pate, and, for good measure, more Vietnamese ingredients, including some quick-pickled vegetables, hot peppers, and cilantro.
I chose the “Special Combination” banh mi, which combines sliced steamed pork, ham, and headcheese, with thick spears of cucumber, shredded carrots, and shredded daikon, which are quick-pickled overnight in vinegar before serving. Finally, an entire branch of cilantro is added. The roll, slightly crusty on the outside, was on the dry side, and had the vibe of day-old bread. It wasn’t saved by either the very thin application of smoky, flavorful pork liver pate, or by Kim’s liberally-applied homemade mayonnaise, which was sharp yellow, yolky, and carried a slightly sour taste. The core elements of the sandwich were all in place, and the combination of textures, along with the fresh snap of the pickled vegetables was as satisfying as ever. The real fault here was the bread, which was so chewy as to make the second half of the sandwich nearly inedible. It wasn’t “satisfying-chewy.” This was “old-chewy.”
Kim’s is the kind of hidden treasure of a shop that you really want to love, from its small, unassuming storefront with its handpainted signage, to its strikingly friendly staff. They are serving up several different types of perfectly respectable banh mi, and strong, caffeine-spiked cups of iced coffee, for next to no money; most sandwiches clock in at under $3.00 . The meats were delicious, and the pickled vegetables were lively and crisp. The bread was my banh mi’s downfall, and when covered with a mayonnaise that, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t help but think of as “rancid,” didn’t provide a lot of motivation for me to finish the sandwich. Still, a sandwich from Kim’s is a welcome break from Portland’s endless assault of ham Italians on insubstantial, soft white rolls. While you’ll certainly do better at Kim’s Gift Shop than you will at the Subway across the street, I found myself wishing my sandwich had been just a little bit better.