The word “barbecue” has many different connotations in the culinary world, depending upon what you’re eating. I think for most people in the United States, “barbecue” implies cooking with smoke, whether it’s the short, intense heat from a real charcoal grill, or the tried-and-true, all-day, slow-and-low approach with a meat smoker. To be sure, most etymologists would agree with this description, since “barbecue” is most likely a bastardization of the Carribean words barbacoa, which is a meat-roasting stand, and barbicú, which is the roasting process itself.
Somehow, despite barbecue’s smoky origins, a few other foods have also earned the “barbecue” moniker, even though they feature smokeless preparations. In Louisiana, for instance, “barbecued” shrimp are sauteed in a mixture of butter, Worcestershire sauce, garlic and rosemary. From there, the shrimp can be served in a bowl alongside a baguette or, preferably, stuffed inside a po-boy roll at Liuzza’s by the Track. With authentic Cajun barbecued shrimp, smoke is never part of the equation, and therefore, this dish can present quite a surprise for any diner who might be expecting a plate of grilled seafood.
And then there’s the puzzling case of Chinese “barbecued” pork, infamous for its candy-apple red glaze, giving each slice of tenderloin its trademark red ring. Again, no smoke is involved in this “barbecue” either, although a slight char of the glaze is desirable. Traditionally, Chinese barbecued pork is marinated, then oven-roasted with a liberal wet-mop of sugar, honey, soy sauce, hoisin and Chinese five-spice (plus, a little red food coloring for eye appeal). Naturally, Chinese barbecued pork can be eaten sliced over rice, minced in a steamed pork bun, or as the main ingredient in a bánh mì sandwich, such as the one served at Cam Huong Deli in Oakland’s Chinatown.
Folks who follow this blog will know that my interest in bánh mì sandwiches has been significant lately, and I have made several trips into San Francisco and the East Bay in search of something memorable. Among the many restaurants within Oakland’s demure Chinatown, Cam Huong has a loyal following and a bustling daytime business, thanks in part to their fantastic prices. Most bánh mì sandwiches on the Cam Huong menu are only $2.75, which is already tough to criticize. Besides, the restaurant certainly offers a respectable version of the sandwich, dressed with the usual suspects: slivers of pickled daikon, julienned carrots, a plank of cucumber, onions, jalapeño, cilantro and a rich, pale yellow mayonnaise.
Of course, as I had mentioned last week in my review of Vietnam Restaurant in San Francisco, great bread is at the foundation of great bánh mì (after all, the word “bánh mì” can mean either the sandwich or just the baguette itself). Traditional bánh mì is baked with a combination of wheat and rice flour, giving the bread a light texture and a paper-thin crust. Indeed, the sandwich at Cam Huong throws a prodigious amount of crumbs (don’t eat this in the car, unless it’s a rental), but the bread isn’t quite as good as the wonderful bread at Vietnam Restaurant. Then again, that latter sandwich is a whopping $5.75, and all the way across the Bay Bridge.