New Orleans’ best sandwich is a culinary mashup, much like the Crescent City itself. Creole cuisine here has always been something of a cultural gumbo: a blend of African, Native American, French and Spanish food traditions reflecting the cultures that flourished in the city after the French founded it in 1718. So when another food tradition joins the melting pot, it’s just a matter of time until the mashups appear.
Jump to the late–1970s influx of Vietnamese immigrants, arriving in southern Louisiana after the Vietnam War: Though the geography, weather and thriving fishing industry of the Mississippi Delta may have felt familiar to these newcomers, it was like a family reunion for the banh mi and the po’ boy, two sandwich brothers from another mother.
The po’ boy is a hearty New Orleans classic filled with fried local shrimp, fish or oysters, or gravy–smothered roast beef, and topped with pickles, mayo and Louisiana hot sauce. The banh mi is made with chicken, roast pork or liver pâté and garnished with crunchy pickled carrot or daikon, cucumber, cilantro, mint, chilies and mayonnaise. With these two baguette–borne specialties on the same scene, the stage was set for new styles, flavours and fillings.
During the 1980s, Vietnamese food suppliers like Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery became the standard for quality po’ boy loaves. As banh mi turned up all over New Orleans, people began to call them “Vietnamese po’ boys,” and when New Orleans East sandwich shop Banh Mi Sao Mai (now closed) entered their banh mi in the 2009 Oak Street Po–Boy Festival, it took home top prize in the non–seafood category. New sandwich recipes were popping up across the city, like the Po–Mi creations at chef Michael Gulotta’s MoPho, a Creole/Asian restaurant near City Park whose Cure–All puts lemongrass sausage and egg together with jalapeño–American cheese. And at Banh Mi Boys in Metairie, Peter Nguyen has been serving both sandwiches side by side since 2016. “Customers started asking for po’ boy ingredients in their banh mi, and vice–versa,” says Nguyen, whose creations include a banh mi pairing fried shrimp with Thai chili glaze. “From there it just kind of snowballed.”