Bánh mì at 35,000 feet: What’s Wrong with Airline Food?


Why, oh, why? That’s what I keep asking myself. Did I have to fork over $7 for a chicken bánh mì that Alaska Airlines was offering for sale on my flight from Los Angeles to Seattle?

Maybe I can be excused when Los Angeles International Airport has what must be the crappiest food service options of any major airport. Did I want another ham and cheese or chicken salad sandwich to take on board? A garden salad? Nope. Seattle-Tacoma Airport is far superior in its range of dining choices.

I might also be excused because I hadn’t had a substantial enough breakfast earlier that morning, so that by the time I was at cruise altitude at lunchtime, I was maybe a bit famished. Or I just needed to munch on something to pass the time.

OK, I shouldn’t be excused at all for being so naive.

The card in the seat pocket in front of me that listed the meal options described the bánh mì as Alaska’s “take” on the Vietnamese classic. Seattle restauranteur Tom Douglas supplies some of the meals on Alaska flights. Perhaps his magic hand might be involved in the sandwiches? I wondered. Hoped.

Instead, a company called LSG Sky Chefs, based in Seattle, made them. Okay, if you think about that for a moment, does that mean the bánh mì I was about to eat made one trip from the Pacific Northwest to Southern California already before it got put into my hands going in the opposite direction? It came wrapped in foil and was hot to handle. When I removed the wrap, steam came billowing out. And what would you think steam does to a sandwich whose bread is renown for its light crispiness? Instead of a baguette, it was more like a hoagie roll. A soggy one at that. While the chicken, what little there was of it, in combination with a kind of savory mayonnaise spread, could be described as tasty, it was also mushy. To LSG’s credit, the fresh vegetables normally found in bánh mì was wrapped separately in a plastic baggie: unseasoned shredded carrots (instead of vinegary-sweet đồ chua), sliced cucumbers and jalapeños, cilantro sprigs.

alaska banh mi

Credit has to be given to Alaska Airlines for even offering such ethnic fare, itself a proclamation that any old sandwich won’t do. But, in the end, as with most airline food, it was pretty awful, the worst bánh mì I’ve ever had.

I should’ve gone with my instincts, eschewed the very idea that a bánh mì served at 35,000 feet could pass muster.

As for LAX food choices at the gates, boarded off areas advertised that exciting plans were underway to bring in big name chefs to set up operations. Really? Do we need Las Vegas glitz or just good food?

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