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?

Has Hawaiian Airlines Misled Customers about Breakfast?

Hawaiian Airlines proudly boasts that it’s the only carrier that serves complimentary meals at mealtime on all its domestic flights. Not only that, the promise is for a meal that is island-inspired. Hawaiian even goes so far as to name its executive chef, Chai Chaowasaree (who helms Pacifica Honolulu in Waikiki), suggestive of a Hawaiian-themed breakfast to Honolulu, yeah? So what did we get?

Am I missing something or does this breakfast look, um, ordinary? What island goodies showed up on the plate? A little bag of milk chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, that’s what. Oh, and a cup of complimentary passionfruit-orange-guava juice from a can. Fresh melons and grapes hardly qualify as tropical fruit. Pre-packaged crackers and cheese? Is this meal the best that Chef Chai could come up with? I didn’t expect first class quality, but at least something to whet my appetite for the island food I was looking forward to, now that my wife and I were headed to Hawaii. The breakfast was as uninspiring as the one we had on Hawaiian Airline’s morning flight from Auckland to Honolulu that I thought was an aberration, but apparently not. Hawaiian’s declaration may very well be true—and for that I should give them more credit—but couldn’t it make more effort to providing morning meals a little more interesting?

I should quit griping because everyone could get a complimentary rum punch just prior to arrival at Honolulu Airport.

Airline Food Deconstructed?

I came across this interesting article on an experience that most of us would prefer not to think about too seriously: eating airline food. It posed the question whether it was truly horrible or is it that we expect it to be. It turns out that one big physiological problem to be overcome is the tendency for our sinuses to close because of the cabin’s very low humidity. Without our sense of smell, food becomes less enjoyable. Dry air also tends to dry up food, which is the reason why airline food tends to be more saucy to compensate. But, without question, the biggest problem is that meals have to be prepared way ahead of time and frozen since airplane galleys are not equipped to make food. All they have are convection ovens for reheating. Gone are the days when roasts used to be carved and salads tossed by the flight attendants, served on china with silverware and cloth napkins. Still, the article goes on to say, some airlines are trying to improve the food they serve.

And the article really struck a chord with me when it admitted that passengers look forward to eating only as a way to combat the extreme boredom of long flights.

Despite the sympathetic tone, there are too many times when airline food, especially breakfasts, like the one between Auckland and Honolulu on Hawaiian Airlines, is truly forgettable. There was little thought given to improving the quality or experience.

The entire article is here.

Trans-Pacific Surprise

I was pleasantly surprised in a most unlikely circumstance.

Nowadays, you eat a meal on an airplane flight just to help pass the time, to get your mind off the cattle car roundup in the cabin, engine noise, TSA, and the other discomforts of modern-day flight. The last thing I thought I’d ever blog about is airplane food. And yet, here I sat on a flight from Honolulu to Auckland with a slight grin on my face. Did my taste buds awaken ever so slightly?

Hawaiian Airlines likes to brag that it is one of the few remaining airlines in the world to serve meals on all its flights (except for short-haul). While breakfast between Seattle and Honolulu was forgettable, the dinner on economy on the leg to Auckland was a mild surprise. Mind you, we’re not talking about restaurant-quality food here, but what normally rouses grunts of resignation turned out to be a decent repast of chicken with rice. The bird, a small cut of breast that might’ve been brined, had light teriyaki chicken flavors and pleasant smoke flavor from grilling, topped with a tasty if limp mango-red bell pepper salsa. Rather than Uncle Ben’s, the rice was steamed Japanese short-grain rice. It was good to the extent that pre-cooked rice shuttled from kitchen to airplane tray can be, a little mushy, not ideal but decent. Oh, and the mango cheesecake was a pleasant surprise.

At the risk of harboring false impressions, the so-called Hawaiian Tea served an hour outside Auckland featured an unimpressive chicken salad sandwiched in a cold kaiser roll, which our neighboring passenger sniffed at, put back in the meal box and enjoyed her pre-purchased spam musubi instead—my kind of people!