Bánh mì in Louisville (part 2 of an onging series): Cafe Mimosa, Phở Bình Minh, Morels Food Truck, and Vietnam Kitchen

This is a continuation of a series begun here, in which I methodically eat my way through every instance appearing in Louisville of the iconic Vietnamese sandwich. Incidentally, I realized this week (after taking one bite of one of my sandwiches) that this series could really use pictures, so this part of the series has cameraphone photos in addition to reviews. Maybe I’ll go back and add photos to the first part at some point; it would involve eating a few extra sandwiches, but that’s a sacrifice I’m prepared to make.

Last week on the same evening as lunch at Annie’s, Shannon and I went out to dinner at Cafe Mimosa. I was surprised and entertained to see a sandwich described as a “Vietnamese Club” on the menu, but I’d had bánh mì for lunch and wanted a more substantial dinner, so I just bookmarked it for later consumption and came back the next Monday. “Have you had it before?” asked the employee who took my carry-out order. “No, but I’m methodically trying a bánh mì at every place in Louisville I can find that serves it,” I said, since my mission’s not really a secret. “Oh, you’ll like it,” he replied and punched in my order.

Over the next few days I rounded out my Viet cuisine exploration with a return to Iroquois’s strong immigrant community, starting with Phở Bình Minh. Wednesday I’d hoped to return, but overheating buses on the 4 line made me unacceptably late, so I figured on trying again on Thursday or Friday. Thursday I learned that Morels Food Truck was operating in my neighborhood, so I went out to try their “Banh Mi Hot Dog”, and on Friday I finished up my foursome with a visit to Iroquois’s mainstay dining location, the Vietnam Kitchen.

[Photo of a sandwich from Cafe Mimosa]Cafe Mimosa (1543 Bardstown Road) is a Highlands institution, which recently moved down south of Eastern Parkway after their location near Mid-City Mall burned down in 2009. They’re not really particularly carryout-oriented, which is why I hadn’t even expected them to have bánh mì, but indeed, they had three varieties: chicken, beef, and pork. I went with the pork, so this sandwich compares most closely to what would elsewhere be called a bánh mì thịt nướng. They cater more towards mainstream American tastes than pure Viet cuisine, and they also have an extensive Chinese menu, so I expected a fairly Americanized sandwich, and my expectations were met (and, surprisingly, in a way that didn’t disappoint me).

The thing which jumped out at me most, when I opened up the box (having gotten it to go, and consumed it while waiting for a bus) was of course the bread, which had an oily golden crispiness to the crust which was far more like an American hoagie roll than like a baguette, and which had a consistency to match. In fairness, it was a very good roll, with good snap in the crust and a warm, fluffily fresh interior, but it didn’t have quite the crisp snap I’d come to expect. Also, like most American sandwich rolls, it was sliced horizontally, rather than the vertical slit used to cut a bánh mì, so while one side (the “top”) was crispy and golden, the other (the “bottom”) was more doughy.

The second obvious feature was the meat. There was a lot of moist, flavorful pork. It had a fresh, tangy marinade and was still very slightly pink inside (which is perfect, not a health hazard). There was also a generous smear of pâté on the roll for added meatiness. In among the enormous quantities of meat, there were large but flat cucumber slices, which unfortunately were thin enough that they didn’t contribute the fresh crunch that cucumbers usually bring. The cilantro was ample, and the daiko adequate; the carrots, on the other hand, were sparingly used and apparently unpickled. The sandwich came with fairly unexceptional shrimp chips and a tiny tub of sriracha. The latter’s an imaginative way to give the takeout customer a choice in heating up the sandwich, but sriracha overwhelms the mellow flavors in a way that the more traditional option of jalapenos doesn’t.

This was an intensely satisfying sandwich, but on conformity to the gold standard of bánh mì construction it has some obvious problems. The meat was wonderful, and while generous portioning is generally a good thing, there might have been a bit too much to keep this on the deliciously light and herbal side of summer sandwiches, and the meat completely overwhelmed the herbal and vegetable flavors. And then there’s the bread, as mentioned above: like the meat, it was splendid but inappropriate contextually. One might argue that what was being offered was indeed not a bánh mì, so much as the “Vietnamese Club” on the menu: it was a sandwich built off of a club-sandwich form with a wealth of Vietnamese influences, and the result was a satisfying item which was not exactly a bánh mì thịt nướng. Other than the authenticity points, I’d raise two issues: it took a surprisingly long time, upwards of 10 minutes, to get the sandwich, and at $8 it was actually the second most expensive item on my tour of what is fundamentally dive food (in fairness, Bardstown Road is demographically quite different from Iroquois Park, and prices change to match).

[Photo of a sandwich from Phở Bình Minh]Next up was Phở Bình Minh (6709 Strawberry Lane). This restaurant is a little hole-in-the-wall next to Dong Phuong down in the industrial part of south Louisville, and a possibly literal mom-and-pop operation. It has a certain off-the-beaten-path charm and quality that’s made it a favorite among Vietnamese-food enthusiasts who have heard of it. They have five variations on the bánh mì, each costing $3: a cold-cut thịt; two variations on grilled meat, the pork thịt heo nướng and beef thịt bò nướng; the standard pork meatball xíu mại; and a roast pork variant xá xíu. I always go with the most atypical one I can find, so I took a xá xíu. For $3 more I added a surprisingly small glass of chanh muối.

The bread was excellent if not quite what I expected. It’s rather shorter and wider that I think of as a classic baguette shape, and the exterior, although uniformly crisped, didn’t have quite the crunchy snap I expect of a bánh mì. But the bread was fluffy and warm and served well. It may have been the width of the roll which made the filling seem, in contrast, rather meager. The actual core of the sandwich was dominated by a single, large lengthwise stick of cucumber, which provided ample freshness and crunch, however, the other elements of the sandwich seemed rather overwhelmed, at least visually, by the comparative width of the roll. The meat was really quite sparing but effectively barbecued. The jalapenos were sufficiently fiery to throw off my enjoyment of the other flavors somewhat; in future visits I might ask them to leave them off. There was a comparatively reasonable amount of carrot and daikon, but only by comparison to the filling-quantity as a whole, which really did seem quite sparse. Cilantro was present only in modest quantities, and the sandwich was undressed except for an egg-rich yellow mayonnaise, which was a bit dry.

All in all, I actually liked most of what they did here, and it could be considerably improved by changing the roll dimensions: a narrower and longer roll would necessitate a greater quantity of filling, true, but it would fill the roll out more and make the flavor less dominated and muted by the bread itself. The jalapenos might not be unbalancing in a sandwich more full of other flavorful elements, and they have a lot of the essentials down. I might leave off the chanh muối next time, though: it was quite good, with a richly seasoned and dissolving lemon, but it was both smaller and significantly pricier than Annie Cafe’s version of comparable quality. In contrast the sandwich, at a $3 price point, didn’t particularly leave me feeling cheated except by the skimpiness of the meat.

[Photo of a sandwich from Morels]Morels Food Truck (various locations) is the brainchild of Stanley Chase III, who funded it in significant part from a Kickstarter launch (to which I donated $20). It is, as the name implies, a food truck which travels around Louisville selling $3 vegan sandwiches. Since they have a product with “banh mi” in the name, I figured I’d give them a go. I expected the strange: although vegetarian bánh mì exist, they’re far from the typical presentation, and going as far as veganism creates serious problems with the mayo and fish sauce often used to dress the sandwich. Add that to a non-Vietnamese source and the use of the word “hot dog” and I was expecting the greatest deviation from the classic standard I’d seen yet.

Well, as might be predicted, it was indeed a divergence. It’s satisfactory and tasty but I can’t in good faith recommend it as a particular exemplar of bánh mì: even as an atypical example it’s just too far afield to really be taken into consideration. This sandwich was, as advertised, a vegan hot dog topped with a Vietnamese-influenced slaw. The dominant flavor was vinegary, but that’s largely in line with the pickled nature of the typical bánh mì fixings. As can be seen in the photo on the left, the slaw was a pretty wet one (with a vegan mayonnaise of some sort), in contrast to the usual assemblage in which the mayo is spread on the roll and the slaw-like elements are fairly dry. The dog was awfully good for a vegan item, and the slaw was definitely made with some of the right stuff: carrots and slivers of hot pepper were easy to detect, but I couldn’t say with certainty that there was daikon in there.

[Photo of a sandwich from Vietnam Kitchen]Vietnam Kitchen (5339 Mitscher Avenue, closed on Wednesdays) is one of the most well-beloved Vietnamese eateries in Louisville, and is the usual one that long-term residents cite when asked where to go for really good, really authentic Vietnamese food. In my mind they’re slightly overrated by comparison to the excellent but obscure smaller locations in Iroquois, but it’s undeniable that they’re a significant and satisfactory part of the local cuisine. They don’t list a bánh mì on the menu, but rumor was that they would make one anyways during lunch hours, so when I went down for an actually quite late lunch I asked if they did them, and the answer was affirmative: they have a cold sandwich (presumably a thịt nguội or cha lua) and a grilled pork sandwich (i.e., a thịt nướng). I ordered the latter for $3.95 and added on my now-traditional glass of chanh muối for another $1.75.

The most noteworthy feature of the sandwich was the daikon, which instead of appearing in the usual shreds displayed itself proudly across the top in thick slabs. The roll was toasty and fresh, and certainly had a promising look, although it lacked the explosive crunch I associate with a proper French roll. Cilantro was generously present and welcome, and the pork was juicy (which was actually surprising: it was quite thinly sliced, and thin-cut meat is dangerously easy to overcook). The daikon and slivered cucumber gave a pleasing crunch, and weren’t at all sogged down by dressing, which was comparatively sparse. However, somehow the sandwich managed to fall apart a bit on flavor, for which I mostly blame the pickles: niether the planklike daikon or the carrots really imparted a strongly vinegared flavor, which is a vital complement to the fresh summery flavor of the cilantro. Likewise, this came without peppers, which certainly isn’t a dealbreaker, as peppers are often an option, but with niether peppers nor strong pickling solution, this sandwich distinctly lacked dominating flavors and came out a mite bland. Timidity of flavor also characterized the chanh muối, which had a favorable saltiness and came pre-muddled, with the lemon almost completely dissolved, but was short both on sweetness (which was actually a relief, since they’re often oversweetened) and on citric character (which was somewhat a failing).

This series is, of course, still not done. I may get out another installment, but it’ll probably go on hiatus. Current points for investigation: DaLat’s Gateaux and Cafe (which used to be Cocos) is reported to have bánh mì, and Ramsi’s has bánh mì on their summer menu. Cafe Thuy Van is a bit further south than my usual range, but I may have to swing down to see what they have.

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Bánh mì in Louisville (part 1 of an onging series): Zanzabar, Dong Phuong, and Annie Cafe

I’m basically an anticolonialist, and I’ve said on a few occasions that there were only two really good things that the Vietnamese gained from French colonization: the fork and the baguette. That both of these are culinary items either says something about me or about the French (or both). Nonetheless, I’m prodigiously fond of Vietnamese food of the street/dive variety, and nothing you can get at an American Vietnamese joint is quite as street-foody as the flavorful and refreshing Vietnamese sandwiches. I had a lot of them in San Diego, but they’re a little less part of the mainstream around here.

This started innocently enough on Memorial Day weekend, with a curious daily special at Zanzabar: their take on a bành mí. Then on Monday the Mayor’s Hike and Bike left me tired and hungry in Iroquois, so I ended up dropping into Dong Phuong for another bánh mì. While leaving, I saw a sign for a cafe I’d never seen before, so I came back in the hopes of a third sandwich on Wednesday. Alas, the cafe was long gone, so I went up to Annie Cafe, where the daily specials board listed (surprise!) a few varieties of bánh mì.

Three times makes a pattern, so I’m taking this opportunity to sample the bành mí at every urban Louisville location I can think of that serves them. Of course, the most important aspect of a bánh mì is, as its name (“wheat bread” in Vietnamese) suggests, the bread. A proper Vietnamese baguette is actually made (despite its name) with a fair bit of rice flour, which gives it a certain lightness and frangibility about the crust. They’re usually sliced fully end-to-end and loaded up with some combination of cilantro, lettuce, cucumber, carrot, daikon, meat, and optionally peppers (generally jalapenos). That’s the model I’ve been following when assessing the local sandwiches for authenticity, flavor, and balance. My favorite style, and the one I usually get when it’s availably, is the bánh mì bì, which is filled with a mixture of pork and stringy, chewy pork skin dusted in roasted rice powder; a second choice is the thịt nướng, which has slabs of grilled pork, or xiu mại, with seasoned ground pork. When those aren’t offered (usually at a location without a grill) I’ll go with one of the cold-cut assemblages.

Zanzabar (2100 South Preston Street), as a gastropub and not actually a Vietnamese location, had the most atypical take on the sandwich, of course, and in some ways it’s not fair to grade it on authenticity. The bread, for instance, wasn’t terribly close to a baguette at all, much flatter, apparently grilled, and devoid of crunch; it was more of a Vietnamese panini than a classic presentation. On actual internal elements it ranged pretty close to what passes for a đặc biệt most places, with pâté and cold cuts (pâté isn’t extremely common on a “house standard” bánh mì, but it’s within ordinary French-influenced parameters [EDIT: pâté is actually pretty customary, as I’ve since both found out through my own studies and called out on. Thanks, Lan!]). The overall flavor was somewhat less aggressive than I’m used to: the carrots and daikon weren’t extremely sharply pickled and there was no trace of fish sauce, although there was sufficient cilantro to carry the day, and rather generous meat. It was a recognizable American reimagining of a Vietnamese classic, and it’s somewhat unfair to ding it on authenticity points; it was an enjoyable sandwich satisfactorily encompassing certain aspects of Vietnamese cuisine (the cilantro and choices of meat were well-informed and appropriate). It was also the single most expensive bánh mì I’ve ever had at $10 (although that came with really quite good, if entirely ethnicity-inappropriate, French fries). This sandwich wasn’t on the main menu, so don’t be too disappointed to see it vanish from the specials (and possibly return sporadically).

[Photo of a sandwich from Dong Phuong]Dong Phuong (6705 Strawberry Lane) isn’t actually a restaurant: it’s a grocery with a deli counter. I’d intended to go into Phở Bình Minh next door, but I started by popping into the grocery (I adore ethnicity-specific groceries), and decided the deli counter called to me. They had 6 varieties of bánh mì listed (the basic standard cold-cut thịt nguội and cha lua variants, hot meat xiu mại and thịt nướng varieties, and two I’d never heard of, the sardine-filled cá mòi and the pork-sung-based thịt chà bông). I badly wanted to try out the thịt chà bông, but unfortunately (either because it was Memorial Day, or because it was early, or because they were out of stock or because they didn’t trust the roundeyes to like it) they couldn’t make any but the first 3 sandwiches, so I settled for a thịt nguội (and a durian shake, which the clerk asked me about seven times if I was absolutely sure I wanted). The sandwich was the kind of divey pleasure I remember getting at little San Diego holes-in-the-wall: a crisp baguette with lots of carrots and daikon, sparing but not stingy quantities of cold-cuts, and even a few extremely mild jalapenos. The veggies were correctly and sharply pickled but the sandwich as a whole wasn’t dressed particularly, which meant that it lacked a nice fishy undercurrent and, more seriously, was a little dry. The bread wasn’t quite perfect either — it was a bit spongier on the inside than a really top-notch sandwich would be, but these are largely quibbles: this was a quite nice presentation of the classic sandwich, with venue to match (I innately distrust anywhere specializing in sit-down service to really get street food), and at the perfect $3 price point (OK, I used to get them for $2.50 in San Diego, but, y’know, inflation). I can’t be as liberal in bestowing praise on the shake, alas, which had inadequately thawed tapioca pearls.

[Photo of a sandwich from Annie Cafe]And finally, there is Annie Cafe (308 West Woodlawn Avenue). I’d been to Annie before; I didn’t realize they did bánh mì, but today they had a sign saying “bánh mì bì/nem/nướng”, so I inquired and sure enough they could provide, and did provide an example of my all-time favorite, the chewy and stringy pork-skin bì variant (and a glass of refreshing chanh muối for vital electrolyte replacement; it’s hot out there on the road). The meat in their variant was pure pork-skin (some interpretations of bí also include flakes of roasted pork), with just the right chewiness, if a little less nutty flavor than I’m used to. The real variation, though, was in veggies: the carrots were an afterthought, although there was sufficient daikon, but the bulk of the sandwich, conspicuous enough to really set it apart from the pack, was a lot of lettuce, which actually worked well: it was fresh and crisp and complemented the crispy/soft pairing in the baguette itself. It was also liberally dressed, with apparently both mayonnaise and fish sauce, which kept it from being dry at all. The lettuce-emphasis was an unusual choice, although inasmuch as it worked and lent the sandwich a pleasingly light tone I’m not inclined to actually criticize it; the closest I can come to a substantive criticism of the sandwich itself was that it was slit on top and stuffed, rather than slit end-to-end. While the stuffing method may have helped to bread retain its consistency, it made the sandwich look a lot more meager than it actually was. Also, even though as a sit-down locale it trends higher pricewise than a deli, the $4 price was a little north of what it seems like a bánh mì ought to cost, even a well-crafted one. Also, as a word of warning, since it was on the specials board, I’m not at all clear whether Annie regularly even has bánh mì, so have a backup lunch in mind if you go there.

Hopefully, this is part of an ongoing series: I still haven’t checked whether Cafe Thuy Van or Vietnam Kitchen (or La Quế, to get out of Iroquois for a while) does bánh mì, nor have I tried Phở Bình Minh’s take. Also, to go back to American re-imaginings, I might swing by Morels. So, stay tuned for the next episode (and comment if I’ve neglected one of your favorite bánh mì joints)!

Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust

Proust’s great literary classic À la recherche du temps perdu is well-known among those who haven’t read it for two things: first, that it is really fucking long (who is Tom Perdue, and why is it going to take 7 books to find him?), and second, that the enormous hundred-odd-page recollection at the beginning is set in motion by the narrator dipping a madeleine in tea and eating it (I have trains of thought like that too, but I don’t write them down). Among a certain class of intellectual in a certain generation (neither of which I belong to, I think), reading Proust or at least pretending to have read Proust was compulsory. So I borrowed a copy of Swann’s Way (in the Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright translation) and set off to be blown away by an extraordinary work of literary genius.

Six hundred pages later, I’m a bit torn. At this point I have no particular desire to read the other six volumes, for reasons which will probably become abundantly clear, but I can appreciate the craft. One thing I can definitely appreciate is Proust’s command of language, which I imagine even comes through well in translation: the structure at both the sentence and multi-sentence level is evocative and well-handles (despite a multitiude of subclauses which often muddles the grammatical structure and makes the reader slow down). On technical issues, this is a beautiful work in a superb translation, rich in sensory detail and in expository whimsy. That’s the sort of thing I like. My problem with it is that this this display of mastery is in the service of very little indeed.

For Swann’s Way (and, as I am given to understand it, the entirety of In Searth of Lost Time) has no actual plot to speak of, but is cast on flotsam and jetsam of memories. The first chapter, “Combray”, was almost intolerable, because it seemed to go nowhere. Things much improved in the second and third sections, “Swann in Love” and “Place Names/The Name”, both of which had a cohesive strand running through them. i’m afraid the rest of the volumes probably more resemble the first section, and its dreamy, pointless ramble through memory. But the last two chapters were very enjoyable indeed.

You might argue that I’m inconsistent: I pan “Combray” for its lack of cohesiveness, and enjoyed The Mezzanine for largely the same reason! That maybe gets to the point of how this book can be enjoyable to people who are not me; those who prefer a ramble through childhood memories of nature and family circles to musings about shoelaces and milk cartons might feel completely opposite to my impression. However, I found disentanging (and trying to derive meaning from) Proust’s memoryscapes to be exhausting. Some of that might be subject matter, some might be the complexity of the sentance and phrasal structure, some might simply be how extraordinarily long the work was. I didn’t find the first chapter enjoyable at all, but I could appreciate the craft.

And, really, the second and third sections are well worth the read.

See also: Wikipedia.