Here, husband and wife Derek and Christine Cheung offer the iconic Vietnamese sandwiches on a crunchy baguette courtesy of Embarek Alibay's La Parisienne Bakery just down the road. In it goes a slick of house-made mayonnaise, the perfunctory cilantro, and pickles, along with fillings such as shredded chicken, the steamed pork roll called cha lua, chicken liver pâté, and barbecued pork. Choose two fillings for $4.95 or get them all for $5.95.
The curt menu also includes five-spice chicken wings (four for $3.75) and a grilled lemongrass pork chop over rice ($8.95). It's primarily a grab-and-go operation with a bustling delivery business. But there are a few modern tables and bright-orange plastic chairs under blown-up pictures of the iconic turtle tower at the center of Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake, as well as photos of Christine as a toddler and teen while growing up in Saigon.
The Cheungs are the parents of Houston restaurant royalty. Their daughter is Jacklyn Pham, owner of the city's cavernous Saigon Pagolac, which is thought to be among the city's oldest Vietnamese joints and boasts its own house-made fish sauce alongside a number of other stunning dishes cooked tableside and rolled up with herbs and pickles in tender rice paper.
Christine and her family came to the United States just before the fall of Saigon in 1975. They were a well-to-do clan whose wealth could be traced back to relatives who moved in from Shanghai decades earlier to help the French build the railroad running down Vietnam's spine. Her father was a South Vietnamese general and a former quartermaster who had helped supply the French's brutal colonial rule. Yet it afforded the family a lavish lifestyle in a country so poor that people at times resorted to eating dogs, cats, and snakes just to survive. "My mother never had to cook," Cheung says. "We had cooks and maids and drivers to do everything for us." But that didn't stop her from dragging a young Christine into the kitchen to teach her the basics of Vietnamese food.
It was there, while pinching her nose shut, she learned to make the spicy fish sauce-based condiment nuoc mam and the roast pork that today fills her bánh mì. A picnic ham marinates overnight in a blend of garlic, Chinese five-spice powder, and fish sauce. It roasts for at least six hours until tender and then is chilled and sliced. For the pâté, chicken livers are seared and then whipped with a mound of butter and a splash of fish sauce. Those lessons paid off well.
The family fled Vietnam and certain death, leaving multiple homes and significant wealth behind. Christine hasn't returned, saying the Communists that currently run the country have stripped out its soul. "You go and you see the way people treat each other, the women selling themselves on the street," she says. "There's nothing left."
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