Banh Mi Throwdown

It started, as many things do nowadays: from a conversation on Twitter. Now it’s turned into a full-fledged food competition, scheduled for Monday, July 26.

It started, as many things do nowadays: from a conversation on Twitter. A few months ago, Chef Patrick Harris, proprietor of Boka Truck, tweeted that the Banh Mi sandwich he’d made was the best in Richmond, and naturally that sparked a debate in the RVA Twitterverse. Local food blogger Jason Guard (@rvafoodie) stirred the pot, and a few other foodies picked up on the conversation, chiming in, talking smack, and suggesting a competition.

Harris’s comment came from a Banh Mi sandwich he’d made for himself to eat one day. “You know how when you make something for yourself, you make it extra special?” says Harris. “Well, I make all my food that way. I’ve eaten them all over. No one is selling a Bahn Mi like this. Mine is fresh and bright and crunchy. It’s balanced.”

Chef Jen Mindell from Café Gutenberg, who clearly has a penchant for unusual competition, took the bait and offered a challenge. She’d already been offering vegetarian and pork versions of the Vietnamese sandwich for over two years at her restaurant and says her sandwich will have the same thing that makes all of her food special: the best ingredients handled with the care they need to really shine. “People underestimate the power of restraint in cooking, and that is often our secret weapon,” says Mindell.

The battle will take place Monday, July 26, when Richmonders will witness the Banh Mi Throwdown at Café Gutenberg at 7pm.

The sandwich in question is simple and satisfying, served on baguette-style bread, filled with vegetables (sometimes pickled), herbs, a meat or protein substitute, and a specialty mayonnaise or dressing. “Sandwiches are an awesome chance to please the palate in one bite, but a lot of chefs overdo it and lose the connection to their ingredients,” says Mindell.

Organizers invited several local Vietnamese establishments that make the dish to participate but they declined. Clearly not a comprehensive competition, the throwdown is meant to be a fun showcase of somewhat untraditional versions of the national dish.

Harris will cook from his truck, parked outside Gutenberg’s space, and Mindell will use her own restaurant kitchen. Each competitor will make a standard meat Banh Mi and a vegan version. “She’s got me cornered on tofu,” says Harris, about Mindell’s expertise with the meat substitute.

Judging will be handled by Jason Guard, Vietnamese owner of Mekong and beer devotee, An Mekong, Savor owner Chef Ellie Basch, and new Style Weekly food writer Robey Martin.

Attendees can enjoy cocktails and social time from 6:30pm to 7:00 pm, followed by the competition and tasting.. The event is free, but donations will be accepted for two local organizations with missions to provide healthy food options for children: Chefs Move to Schools and Lunch Boxes 4 Life.

Chef Basch was at the White House last month for the launch of Chefs Move to Schools, First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative for chefs to adopt local schools and provide them with nutrition education. She and personal chef Sally Schmidt will be participating with the project at the William Byrd Community House this summer and will partner with Linwood Holton Elementary in the fall.

Lunch Boxes 4 Life is a brand new non-profit, started by Amy Siler, to provide low-cost, local, healthy meal options for low-income children in schools. The Boka Truck and Lunch Boxes are collaborating on a few other projects that are still in the works.

Banh Mi Throwdown at Café Gutenberg
Monday, July 26
1700 E. Main Street
Doors open at 6:30pm, competition starts at 7pm

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Holly Gordon

Holly Gordon spends her days working with Richmond’s hearty nonprofit community and her nights singing in a community chorus. She loves her feminist book club, and is always distracted by shiny things.

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