But when I’m in Los Angeles, some of my happiest moments occur when I’m eating a lemongrass tofu banh mi from local mini-chain Mendocino Farms.
A lot of that has to do with the company I’m keeping. It’s highly unlikely we’ll be sitting next to Beyoncé and Jay-Z there—like we did last year while eating at hotspot Jon and Vinny’s—but I’d honestly rather share a sandwich with Lauren, my ride-or-die favorite fellow sandwich lover, and our core group of Angeleno friends than with globally powerful superstars who could give me private tours of the Louvre any day. Really, I would.
The menu at Mendo, as it’s referred to locally, is a flavor-packed farm-to-table affair that keeps the purists happy (BLTs and clubs; a kickass tuna melt) while giving us sandwich adventurists something to get excited about.
Lauren and I shared a long-term crush on the spicy lemongrass steak banh mi—a sandwich that had quite the following beyond the two of us, but which is now dearly departed from the menu. Pour out some passion fruit iced tea in its memory.
However, I’m a tofu fan, so I’m just as happy with the vegan bahn mi, which lives on to satisfy hearts and stomachs across California (well, those hearts and stomachs who are into tofu, which Lauren is not). And since I only get to hang out with Lauren at Mendo once every two years or so, I need to make my own version of their banh mi to eat at home.
Just as I did for the green bean sandwich from Meat Cheese Bread in Portland, Oregon, my lemongrass tofu banh mi is an inspired take on the Mendocino Farms original, not a direct replica. Its flavors are similar, but a little simplified, because I’m making this for myself.
For one, it drives me crazy when I’m pulling whole stalks of cilantro between my teeth and accidentally yanking out huge jalapeño rounds with every bite of my banh mi. So instead of a chile aioli, I’ve folded heaps of chopped cilantro and fresh jalapeño into a lime mayonnaise. (Cilantro haters, you know what to do: sub in your favorite herbs like basil, parsley, and sorrel, and you’ll be good to go.)
And does a sandwich really need both daikon and carrots for crunch? Yeah, it looks pretty, but if there’s not a daikon radish taking up space in my crisper, I’m not going to sweat it. I’m just going to quick-pickle some carrots overnight and let them do the work in providing a sweet-and-sour bite to the whole thing.
The most important thing in my sandwich world, though, is the tofu. It’s gotta be crisp or I don’t want it anywhere near my banh mi. In hot weather, I use a copper grill mat to get a sizzling sear without leaving half the tofu stuck to the grill; if sunny days aren’t in the forecast, I’ll just bake the marinated slices using my classic crispy baked tofu technique.
Regardless of how you personalize this lemongrass tofu banh mi to your personal liking, remember this: it’s always best when you’re sharing with a friend. That’s why this recipe makes four sandwiches out of one baguette and one block of tofu—there’s enough to go around!
- 1 package extra-firm tofu
- 2 cups water
- 1/3 cup soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon light or dark brown sugar
- 1 stalk lemongrass, coarsely chopped
- 1 large garlic clove, chopped
- 1 2- inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
- 1 Thai chile, thinly sliced into rounds
- 1 large carrot
- 1 cup white vinegar
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 1 jalapeño, stemmed, de-seeded, and minced
- 1/2 cup (4 ounces; 113 grams) mayonnaise
- 1 small lime, juiced
- kosher salt
- 1 baguette
- 1 cucumber
ONE DAY AHEAD:
Marinate the tofu:
- Drain the tofu and press per the instructions in my basic crispy baked tofu recipe.
- While the tofu is pressing, add the water, soy sauce, brown sugar, lemongrass, garlic, ginger, and Thai chile to a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar dissolves.
- Remove from the heat and let cool while you slice the tofu.
- Cut the tofu into 6 planks—make three slices parallel to the long edge of the tofu block, and then cut those in half.
- Place the tofu pieces in a baking dish/casserole that can fit them comfortably in a single layer—they can be snugly placed as long as they're not overlapping. (I use my Pyrex baking dish, but that's just me.)
- Pour the marinade over the tofu, making sure all pieces are completely submerged.
- Refrigerate for at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours, flipping the tofu pieces about halfway through the marinating time to make sure they're absorbing the marinade on both sides.
Make the pickled carrots:
- Whisk the vinegar and sugar together in a medium bowl until the sugar dissolves.
- Peel the carrot and finely shred with a julienne slicer or mandoline.
- Add the carrot to the vinegar, making sure all pieces are completely submerged.
- Refrigerate for at least 8 hours and up to 24 hours.
DAY OF EATING THE SANDWICHES:
Cook the tofu:
- Remove the tofu from the marinade and discard the marinade. Slice each plank in half through its "equator" to make 12 shallow planks.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees or preheat a grill to medium heat.
- If baking in the oven, line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking liner. If grilling, you can place a copper grill mat on the grates to prevent sticking and minimize cleanup issues.
- Place the tofu planks on the prepared baking sheet or grill mat. Bake for about 30 minutes or grill for about 15 minutes, flipping halfway through the cook time.
- Remove from the heat.
Make the mayonnaise:
- Stir the cilantro, jalapeño, and mayonnaise together in a small bowl.
- Add lime juice and salt to taste.
Assemble the sandwich:
- Cut the baguette into 4 pieces and slice each of those pieces in half.
- Slice the cucumber into wide, paper-thin slices with a mandoline or handheld slicer.
- Slather the mayonnaise onto the cut sides—both top and bottom—of each baguette.
- Top with cucumber slices, followed by the tofu, then handfuls of pickled carrot.
- Close up the sandwich and eat immediately.