There is something oddly gratifying about finding a restaurant that provides satisfying meals at no-frills prices. As an admittedly frugal foodie, I’m always in search of places where the customer gets more for less, and few New Hampshire cities are more equipped with providing inexpensive eats to visitors than Nashua.
The state’s second largest city is rife with no-nonsense, hole-in-the-wall shops dishing out economical eats in a simple setting. Nashua’s unmatched diversity (by New Hampshire standards) has translated to the introduction of many international cuisines.
Few establishments embody the idea of a cheap, no-frills place to eat than Saigon Sandwich, a popular sandwich shop and Vietnamese restaurant dishing out real-deal banh mi.
Upon approaching this diminutive spot located away from the hustle of downtown Nashua, an air of skepticism may take effect. Indeed, eating here seems like a leap of faith at first.
The facade is as basic as can be, with a sign that doesn’t exactly beg the average passerby the peek inside. Walk inside and you’ll be faced with a downright spartan interior that’s furnished with only a small handful of tables equipped with hoison, chili garlic sauce and sriracha. To any first-timer, it’s a place where you order at the counter and cross your fingers.
Instead of being fearful, you should feel grateful, as you’ve just found one of the few places in the state that offers an authentic banh mi sandwich, a French-Vietnamese creation that dates back to the 1950’s.
The defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 effectively ended their occupation of Vietnam. Now with the French gone and the country split in two, much of the population fled south. The need for a quick, efficient and inexpensive meal soon arose among the population.
The French introduced bread, cold cuts and dairy into the Vietnamese diet during their occupation. Following the French defeat, the south Vietnamese took these traditionally European ingredients and added their own flare; the result was a new fusion dish that fulfilled the needs of the people.
So what’s in this culinary mashup? The contents of the sandwich vary, but the base is always a crusty baguette. At Saigon, the baguettes snap, crackle and pop like a bowl of Rice Crispies. Expect a small pile of bread debris when you’re through, as the crisp exterior will shatter when clutched.
The traditional banh mi features a layer of French pate (pork liver spread), Vietnamese pork roll (Southeast Asia’s answer to scrapple) and ham. The trifecta of pork is layered onto the baguette, each bringing a different texture to the sandwich party. The pate adds creaminess, the pork roll is hearty and toothsome and the ham brings the smokiness.
To counteract all of that animal protein, the sandwich is topped with a salad of cucumber, carrots, daikon radish and cilantro. The freshness and crunch of the vegetables mingle with the meaty pork, creating a well-balanced package of varying flavors and textures.
If the idea of eating foreign pork products turns you off, then you can opt for one of the less intense sandwiches such as the grilled beef banh mi or the grilled chicken banh mi. They’re the perfect mid-day restorative for the wallet-conscious gourmand since none of the sandwiches cost more than six bucks.
The menu at Saigon Sandwich goes far beyond the banh mi. Vietnamese rice porridge, barbecue meats with vermicelli, fresh shrimp spring rolls and countless varieties of pho are also available. The special beef pho, a hearty combination of rare steak, brisket, tendon and tripe, is especially comforting on a brisk day.
Saigon sandwich may not be the most aesthetically pleasing Asian restaurant in town, but it’s unbeatable for anyone searching for a taste of Vietnam at basement foundation prices. Give them a visit at 241 Main Street in Nashua, Monday to Saturday.