The TED conference is taking place in Long Beach this week, with the like of Bill Gates descending upon the hotels and conference hall spaces in and around the intersection of Ocean Boulevard and Pine Avenue. Of the wide array of topics being discussed at TED 2010 will be food, with celebrity chefs Dan Barber and Jamie Oliver in attendance. Barber has spoken at the conference in the past–in 2008, he told the story of eating ethically raised foie gras in Spain–and has been a leading voice in moving the nation's meat industry towards more pastured, grass-fed practices. The ideas Barber advocates for are upheld in his own kitchens in New York, where his Blue Hill at Stone Barns in the Hudson River Valley serves a menu sourced largely from the on-site Blue Hill Farm, as well as other local growers and ranchers.
There is a huge history of agriculture in Orange County, with much of the land we live on now devoted to citrus groves and livestock in the not too distant past. But as we've eaten away at our agricultural land in Southern California, we haven't had the resources to support the same rush to source the meat we eat as immaculately and sustainably as the market vegetables that are so common now in restaurants and homes alike. But there's grass-fed beef at some farmers' markets now and some eateries are pushing for sustainable practices for the proteins they serve. Number Nine, a faux Vietnamese restaurant on Long Beach's Retro Row–its bright white walls and modern art and architecture world's away from the majority of Little Saigon's much more authentic restaurants–has taken on the challenge of serving grass-fed and pasture-raised meats from family farms in their bún, phở and bánh mì. But do they taste better? Stick a Fork in It picked up their pork bánh mì for lunch to find out.
We compared Number Nine to a Long Beach bánh mì favorite, My Le. Located on Anaheim St., in the heart of Little Phnom Phen, the small deli features a buffet of hot dishes, spring rolls and the like, but the large sign outside advertising FRENCH SANDWICHES makes the main billing here clear. A mere two bucks gets you a sandwich, the fillings ranging from pork and chicken to various cold cuts and tuna or sardines (an extra dollar for the fish), the meats stuffed into a toaster oven-crisped baguette along with the standard fare: pickled carrots and daikon, mayo, cilantro, chilies and cucumber. The pork sandwich featured a bright red iteration of the meat, which was pleasantly sweet in contrast to the vinegar bite and chili kick of the other ingredients. It was no transcendent bánh mì; no Bánh Mì Chè Cali. But it was a perfect quick and satiating lunch. Not to mention cheap.
The sandwiches at Number Nine aren't nearly as inexpensive as My Le's, but with the higher pedigree meats comes a higher prices. Eight bucks bought us a pork sandwich, which came with a side of crispy shrimp chips–a welcome addition, but not exactly the caloric equivalent of four My Le sandwiches. The fillings were the same standards as at My Le, but the pork was a completely different thing: thick, well-browned slices of a fatty cut–probably shoulder–stuck out slightly from the edges of the baguette, looking much different from the red-dyed slivers from My Le. And without the brightly colored sauce, the pork tasted more of itself, rather than sugar, vinegar and some spices and heat. Unfortunately, this quarter inch-thick slices weren't the most tender pieces of meat, pushing the definition of “toothsome” to its very edge–but if you don't mind having to gnaw a bit, then the flavor reward was fairly great.
In the end, it's a matter of personal preference. Does an extra six dollars and a cleaner conscious make your lunch taste better? Does the unnatural color of crayon red have business coating a perfectly good piece of pork? It seems that every Thanksgiving some cooking magazine does a taste test of turkeys, ranging from Butterballs to a heritage breed that's been pasture-raised, etc., etc. And every year, the Butterball ranks high–very, very high, when price is considered–against the competition, and its largely because Butterball has been the taste of Thanksgiving for so long for so many. A bánh mì sandwich doesn't carry nearly the nostalgic weight of a roasted holiday bird, but it is believable that the familiar might be preferred simply for its being recognizable rather than actually tasting better–and discerning between the two responses is far from being easy. This writer prefers a non-red pork, a porkier pork–and a lightened load, karma-wise.
Would you agree?