Hoa Thi Pham (a.k.a. Rose) fondly remembers Sundays with her mother when she was growing up in Saigon. After church, Pham’s mother would take her to buy bánh mì sandwiches from a pair of women in the street. Squatting on the sidewalk, they would slice open crusty French rolls and pile in cold slices of ham, pâtés, butter, and pickled vegetables right on the spot, as bicycles, scooters, and American military vehicles drove by.
Bánh mì are the perfect fusion of European sandwich culture with Asian flavours, at once comforting and interesting, and almost always sold at a fraction of the price of any other comparable sandwich or sub. Around North American cities, there are now cross-cultural bánh mì, gourmet bánh mì, bánh mì chains, and bánh mì food trucks. Pham’s eponymous shop, Rose’s Vietnamese Sandwiches, on Gerrard, just east of Broadview, has been slinging classic bánh mì at a breakneck pace for the past decade.
Pham came of age during the American war in Vietnam. The fall of Saigon to the communists in 1975 brought reprisals, imprisonment, and poverty for many in Vietnam’s south, and millions fled the country. Pham and her husband tried to leave in 1980, but their boat was caught by the Vietnamese military and they were imprisoned for six months, along with their daughter.
When they were released, Pham worked various jobs, first as a seamstress in a sweatshop and later running a noodle factory for the government. Poverty and hunger were widespread. The plump bánh mì of her youth were now just buns with a drizzle of fish sauce and some vegetables standing in for meat. Still, they were delicious. “Maybe we were poor,” Pham recalls, “but everything we ate was good.”
She arrived in Toronto in 1991 and bought a donut shop at Gerrard and Pape. The Vietnamese community in the area grew as the boat refugees settled (it’s one of several Vietnamese pockets in the city, sharing space with Chinatown East). After a few years of honey crullers and stale coffee, she began augmenting the menu with Vietnamese staples, like strong drip coffee fortified with condensed milk and heavy cream, steamed buns stuffed with egg and pork meatballs, and sticky rice cakes. Pham opened Rose Café on Broadview Avenue in 2000, adding bánh mì to the menu, and her reputation grew. In 2010, she moved onto Gerrard and renamed her shop Rose’s Vietnamese Sandwiches.
Each bánh mì is made on a crusty, airy baguette that comes in three sizes, ranging from $2 to the extra deluxe, for $3. Condiments anchor each sandwich—fresh cilantro leaves, salty butter, sweet and sour pickled radish and carrot, a slick of green chili paste, and two long slices of peeled cucumber—but it’s the proteins that make all the difference. There’s garlic marinated tofu that’s chewy and mixed with mushrooms, dry shredded chicken flavoured with soy, and warm pork meatballs that are sweet and somewhat spicy. The most popular bánh mì is the assorted meat combo, with four types of ham: a black pepper terrine, one made of white meat, another that’s a coarse bologna, and a fourth containing pig’s ear.
There’s far more than sandwiches at Rose’s. In fact, the bánh mì counter only occupies the front quarter of the store, while the rest is filled with everything from stacked tins of instant coffee and exotic fruit juices to colourful jellied desserts. There are fat rice-paper rolls, filled with poached shrimp and noodles, and sweet fried spring rolls stacked like timber. One of the most interesting treats is a colourful grid of sticky breakfast rice. Each flavour (banyan leaf, tart red apple, yellow bean, black bean) dyes the rice a vibrant hue, so it looks a little like an edible version of the game Simon.
As with most Vietnamese sandwich shops, it’s a struggle to spend more than $10 per person at Rose’s. The value is a testament to the self-sacrifice immigrant owners like Pham are willing to endure to earn a basic living. On a typical sandwich, she’ll make just 50 cents profit. “We grew up in a poor country,” she says. “Making a dollar or two is big money for us…sure, I could sell a sandwich for $4, but the people want it cheaper.” Her three children work in medicine and IT and hold MBAs. Each sandwich is a symbol of Pham’s commitment to vault them into privileged futures.
“We typically eat these for Vietnamese New Year,” Pham says, showing me Bánh Tét—twine-tied banana leaf stuffed with coconut, green beans, and ham. “But here, we are rich, so it’s New Year’s every day.”
Rose’s Vietnamese Sandwiches, 601 Gerrard St. E., 416-406-9906.