Sandwich Review: Pine State Biscuits

I've heard people claim their comfort food is sushi, or stir fry.

Unless it's congee or hum bao, I have to wonder whether they mean the same thing by 'comfort food.' Sure, it means the food you ate when you were a kid, but there's also a deeper biological drive for comfort. Our bodies are comforted by any food that adds extra calories, especially fat calories that provide quick energy to escape predators, or hunt for prey. Fat is comforting because historically it meant you would survive longer in the wilderness.

So, it's no wonder KFC released their Double Down: Two fried chicken breasts sandwiching two slices of bacon and two two slices of cheese.  Including the "special sauce" it's essentially three kinds of fat between two pieces of deep fried chicken. A blatant attempt to short-circuit our instincts that borders on obscene.
I don't want to pick on just KFC -- all the fast food restaurants are eager to give you what you crave.

SandwichCaloriesCal. FatGrams fatMg sodiumMg cholesterol
Double Down540 cal.290 cal.32 g1380 mg145mg
Whopper670 cal.350 cal.40 g1020 mg75 mg
Big Mac540 cal.260 cal.29 g1040 mg75 mg

Using this calorie calculator you can see an average person should consume about 2000 to 2800 calories per day, which works out to 500 to 700 calories of fat. Any one of these sandwiches provides 50% of that amount, as well as giving you 30% to 50% of your sodium (sodium RDA is 1500, with an upper limit of 2300).

Fortunately there are local Portland restaurants that provide comfort without selling your stomach to the devil.  I'd bet on Pine State Biscuits' flagship sandwich, the Reggie ($7), against the KFC's Double Down any day of the month. The Reggie is a piece of fried chicken with bacon and cheese in a flaky biscuit smothered with gravy.  If you're going to eat the Reggie I suggest a good workout beforehand, or bring along a friend. I love this kind of stuff, but it's just too much for me to eat even one of these sandwiches -- just too much 'comfort'. I prefer the simple egg and bacon and cheese in a biscuit ($4.50), hold the gravy. That'll last me from breakfast until 1pm or later.

It's the early bird that gets the biscuit -- even at 8am there's a line. The small space makes seating a premium so if you live nearby, or it's nice enough to eat in nearby Sunnyside park, you might think about getting it to go.  Also, the coffee is strong, and I like the variety of hot sauces.  Both work well to perk up your body after the carbo/lipo load.

In addition to the sandwiches you can get Southern-style sides such as collard greens, fried green tomatoes and grits. They offer a shitake mushroom gravy if you want vegetarian fare, and the biscuits, at $1.50 each, are flaky and tasty.  I see from their website they will also be at the Saturday Farmer's Market in the Park Blocks near PSU.

Pine State Biscuits
3640 SE Belmont Street
Portland, OR 97214
(503) 236-3346
Open 7 days a week, 7am - 2pm


Sandwich Review: An Xuyen ("Bun Me!")

"Something is happening here but you don't know what it is do you, Mr. Jones?" -- Bob Dylan

Five years ago on my on my first visit to An Xuyen bakery I felt like the Thin Man. I'd read an article about Vietnamese sandwiches called Bánh mì, and it mentioned a couple of restaurants in Portland to check out including An Xuyen. Instead of a restaurant, however, I found a place stacked with green and yellow pinwheel cakes, pink cookies, unrecognizable pastries and loaves and loaves of french bread. A very small girl peeked around the counter, smiled, and ran into the back room. On the wall was a hand lettered sign "Bánh mì" and a couple of options. Something was happening here, but I wasn't sure what it was. After a bit a Vietnamese woman showed up, and took my order. I got the sandwiches, warm in my hands, but there wasn't much space to sit so I headed for home to eat.

They were surprisingly good. The crunchiness of the carrots and daikon radish offset the thickness of the pork pate, while an unrecognizable sweet condiment tempered the raw jalapenos, and cilantro brightened up the whole sandwich.

The best feature, however, was the baguette. It's the closest I've found to an "average" French baguette in the US. Many artisan bakers try for a crisp crust on their baguettes, which is nice, but it doesn't work for sandwiches. The baguettes from An Xuyen have a lightly crunchy crust that gives way while the inside is fluffy, some say "butter air soft," but still provides substance.

It's a history lesson in itself explaining how a Vietnamese bakery in Portland can make such excellent sandwiches. It starts with Napoleon III establishing French control over Cochinchina (the southernmost part of modern Vietnam including Saigon) in 1867 and 1874, and continues though the Viet Nam war, the fall of Saigon, and the Vietnamese immigrants to the US, quite a few who filtered through Louisiana and the south. In the US, Bánh mì is sometimes called a "Saigon Sub", a "Vietnamese Sub," a "Vietnamese Po' boy" or a "Vietnamese Hoagie". I usually just call them Bánh mì ("Bun Me!") or Vietnamese Sandwiches. They are usually a combination of French and Vietnamese ingredients (Eurocentric baguettes, pâté and mayonnaise, mixed with Asian influences of cilantro, hot peppers, fish sauce and pickled carrots).

Five years later An Xuyen is a little different. The girl is older and she often works the register. The sign is more professional, and I think they offer more kinds of sandwiches. Bánh mì are small and cheap enough ($2.25 each) you can order a couple and eat immediately, or save some for lunch the next day -- they keep well. I tried to order one shredded pork, and one nem nuong (pate), but there was a communication problem and I might have switched the pork for the thit nguoi (combination). Just like in French pate, the meats undergo a series of transformations that make it hard to positively identify, which might make the food a bit challenging to some (if you like to ID your meat, go for the BBQ pork sandwich).

The quality I like best about An Xuyen is that the Bánh mì are just part of the bigger picture. You can tell it's a family business from the people who work there and they focus primarily on the bakery. The bread is perfect, but they also have a huge variety of interesting pastries and cakes. There are only a few tables for eating in, but the sandwiches are neatly wrapped and great for taking with you at lunchtime. I haven't been to Binh Minh, but An Xuyen is cheaper and higher quality than Best Baguette. Order the combo and you can also enjoy the French/Vietnamese fusion of ca phe su da.

An Xuyen Bakery Inc.
5345 S.E. Foster Rd.
Portland, OR 97206
Tel: 503 788 0866
Open 7-6 M-F. 7-3 Sunday



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