Vietnamese Caramel Braised Pork Belly Banh Mi – Nail Shop Eats #4

The leaning tower of pork belly banh mi: not for the light hearted

I’m not a comedian, nor was I trying to be one when I spoke frankly about my mother’s Nail shop cooking escapades. Like I’ve always said, my mother is a culinary fool, a manic of a woman who lives to feed her family of 6 kids and our extended family of neighborhood friends. She’s been known to get even more carried away and feed her nail shop clients homemade noodles and fish sauce while they’re getting their pedicures.

My mother’s nail shop has launched her notoriety as the local nail salon that leaves you twinkling with pretty red nails and stinking of fish sauce. Or in our case, smelling so umami-delicious!

Her salon is a combination Viet food joint slash Tuesday-after-5pm-pedicure-special nail salon. And it tickles me #32 bottle-pink to see the buzzing jive of food and eyebrow “wacks” that are going on. The ladies are still trying to pronounce “wax” correctly. Good luck.

I make an effort to be a good daughter and relieve her for a few hours from the bonds of the nail salon so that she can visit her vendors and suppliers. I enjoy the time that I’m in the salon because I get to visit all the ladies that work there and participate in their daily chat, gossip, bitching sessions and most importantly, food talk. When you get 10 Vietnamese women talking passionately about food, recipes and family food stories, it’s a Ph.D lesson in Vietnamese culture and cuisine. Everytime I walk out of there, I feel so much smarter and unfortunately, 10 pounds heavier from all the food talk.

On one lucky occasion, my mother had a huge tupperware of her beloved braised pork belly waiting at the salon. Before I arrived, she rang me on my phone and screamed (she always thinks we’re deaf on the other side of the cell phone) “Con ghé vaò tiệm bánh mì mua cho mẹ 8 ổ bánh mì baguette!!!” When Mother requests 8 loaves of crusty vietnamese baguettes, I know of only one salivating vision—Mom’s braised pork belly banh mi sandwiches.

I hooked a quick and discreetly illegal u-turn and headed to one of our local Vietnamese bakeries for the 8 loaves of baguettes that she requested.

When I arrived at the salon, it was like a scene from the “stone soup” story. Mom brought the braised pork belly, Chi Yen had a bag of fresh cilantro, Vicky (real name is Phuong) donated the tub of pate and the others completed the community meal with their donations of pickled carrots/daikon, fresh chiles and soy sauce. My arrival of the baguettes was met with roaring applause and the always anti-climatic critique, “What took you so long? We’re hungry!”

I dived head first in to the best banh mi of the day. Juicy, fatty, melt-in-your-mouth pork belly sandwiched between cool and tangy textures of the banh mi pickles is just pure Viet food genius. Add a light and heavenly crusty Vietnamese baguette to hold all the flavors and textures in, and what you have is one of the best friggin’ sandwiches on the face of the earth. That’s right, Vietnamese banh mi is one of the worlds best sandwiches and anyone who wants to argue with me will have my mother and her staff to contend with!

So there you have it. A Vietnamese braised pork belly banh mi that will leave you overwhelmed, satisfied and in awe on the power of a good mamwich.

Thank you Mom,


Other Nail Shop Eats (some of the very first posts for this blog -Jan 2008) & Related Recipes

Step-by-Step photographs for Braised Caramel Pork Belly

above: cook shallots & garlic until fragrant and light brown

above: add pork belly, cook until seared on all edges, add fish sauce

above: add water, black peppercorns and braise.

above left: after caramel is added. Above right: after about 45 minutes of braising, pork belly becomes soft & caramel crusted. 

Step-by-Step Photographs for Vietnamese Caramel

above: the heated sugar/water will slowly melt and become light brown caramel

above: continue heating until caramel becomes golden brown. Immediately remove from heat. If needed, add additional water (very carefully! slowly!) to the caramel, then stir quickly to thin the caramel. Pour the caramel mixture into pork for braising.

Braised Caramel Pork Belly Banh Mi Sandwich Recipe

Yield: 4 Sandwiches

Cook Time: 1 hour

Vietnamese Braised Pork Belly Banh Mi Sandwich Making good banh mi at home is quite easy, but can involve a bit of preparation. Simply put, you can make it as simple or thorough as you want or have time for.

Making Banh mi preparation easier is all about nailing down the assembly. Once you have your basic pantry items for banh mi, it won't take that much more effort. The carrot and daikon pickles can be made ahead of time and be stored in the fridge for about 1 month.


Caramel Ingredients

  • 3 Tbs sugar
  • 2 tbs warm water

Pork Ingredients

  • 2 lbs cubed pork belly (about 1 inch cubes)
  • 2 large shallots, minced (about 3-4 tablespoons)
  • 1 tablespoons oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons of fish sauce
  • about 1 or 1.5 cups of water
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

Banh Mi Assembly (not all required, some are optional):

  • 1 french baguette
  • pickled carrots and daikon. Recipe for carrot/daikon pickles here.
  • fresh cilantro
  • soy sauce
  • pork liver pate
  • mayonnaise
  • thin slices of chili pepper
  • thin slices of cucumber


Make the caramel sauce

  1. Combine sugar and water to heavy bottom sauce pan. Heat pan on medium heat and let sugar melt. As sugar begins to melt, the mixture will begin to turn to a golden brown. Using wooden spoon, stir the mixture slowly as the caramel browns.
  2. Do not leave the caramel sauce unattended! Once the sugar begins to melt, it will turn color very quickly. As soon as the mixture turns to a medium golden brown, immediately remove pan from heat.
  3. If the mixture is still too thick, SLOWLY and CAREFULLY add additional water 1 tablespoon at a time until the mixture becomes more watery in consistency. Adding the addition water to the HOT caramel will splatter, so be careful. Quickly mix with a wooden spoon so that there are no hard lumps. When finished, set aside. The caramel should look and have consistency like maple syrup.

For the Pork:

  1. In medium to large sauce pan (or dutch oven), turn on heat to medium. Heat oil, then add shallots. Slowly cook shallots for about 1 minute, then add garlic. Cook both until they become soft and fragrant. Add pork belly. Cook pork belly on high heat for about 10 minutes or until all the edges are seared and browned.
  2. Add fish sauce and cook pork belly for about another 5 minutes. Add about 1 cup of water. If you need more water to cover the pork, add more until the pork is covered. Add the peppercorns. Turn heat to low and cook for about another 10 minutes. Stirring occasionally. Then add the caramel sauce.
  3. Continue braising the pork on low heat for about another 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until pork is tender. Stir occasionally.

For the Banh Mi assembly:

  1. Slice baguettes lengthwise. Add the ingredients that you want (or like) to the banh mi. Add slices of the pork belly.
  2. Enjoy!
Recipe Source:

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Recipe Note for Salt: All recipes containing salt are based on kosher or sea salt amounts, not table salt. If using table salt, reduce the amount used to taste.