Bánh mì in Louisville (part 3 of an onging series): Ramsi’s, DaLat’s, Heart and Soy

Seven reviews have already appeared in the previous installments of this series (part 1 and part 2). I’m back in Louisville now (see my adventures in Boston here), and reviewing local establishments again. I’d been holding this one back pending a few additional expeditions, but it might be a while before I get an opportunity to finish those up, so I’ll just push these out and save the remaining projects for another post.

I started out my return to local fare by going out to dinner with Shannon at a Highlands institution, the pan-ethnic Ramsi’s Cafe on the World, which has added something they call bánh mì to their menu (either as a summer seasonal element or as a mainstay sandwich; not sure which). Some time later I realized I needed to continue my exploration of Iroquois, and decided to check the bakery DaLat’s off my list. That same day I received the news of a new Highlands east-Asian vegetarian street-food shop, Heart and Soy, and added them to the list when I next has a good excuse to be in the Highlands.

[Photo of a sandwich from Ramsi's]Ramsi’s Café on the World (1293 Bardstown Road) is a well-beloved institution across from the Mid-City Mall. I think it’s appreciated chiefly for its late hours and for its American-friendly interpretation of international fare; it’s a way to go out for something unusual without straying outside your comfort zone. Two things could be certain, going in: the sandwich I got here would be less authentic, and more expensive, than at any real Vietnamese sandwich shop. I’d sort of pegged it as likely less real than Cafe Mimosa, more real than Zanzabar.. At $10.50, this was my most expensive bánh mì yet, and it took about 25 or so minutes to come out, which is the longest wait I’ve ever had for one.

To my surprise (which probably shouldn’t have been the case if I’d read the menu more closely) this was even further from the real thing than Zanzabar’s foray. Strike one was the meat, which was a braised brisket; braised and stew meats are vanishingly uncommon, since whether the meat is beef, chicken, or pork, it’s usually either roasted or grilled. Another obvious departure was in the vegetable fixings: no carrot, daikon, cilantro, or onion; what cucumber did appear was in the shape of thin rounds instead of spears, which didn’t impart the crunch which is a requisite part of the Vietnamese sandwich experience. In a departure which was additive instead of subtractive, the sandwich was adorned with basil, which unfortunately either had been sitting around too long or had wilted on contact with the fresh-stewed beef.

Now we get to the details of the mayo and bread. The bread had the right crunch and sponginess on the interior, but there was altogether too much of it; the shape was more bâtard than baguette and there was enough bread in each bite to make it a bit of a chore to work through. The mayonnaise didn’t taste of fish sauce (although fish sauce is a subtle flavor that could easily get lost in the mix), but it was really quite spicy, more so than I think of as the usual spice level of a bánh mì, even when festooned with hot peppers.

There were aspects of this sandwich which were pleasing. The braised beef was an interesting departure, and its higher moisture level meant that there was no danger that this sandwich would be too dry; likewise, the bread was the right crispness if the wrong shape. However, elements which were disappointingly inauthentic (such as the missing veggies) or ill-conceived (such as the sandwich’s overall balance) outweighed the promising elements, and I can’t really recommend Ramsi’s take. If you end up at Ramsi’s and feel like a sandwich, you could probably do worse than the bánh mì, but if you’re out actively seeking tasty and interesting variants on the Vietnamese sandwich, then you might want to seek elsewhere.

[Photo of the sandwich display at DaLat's]
[Photo of a sandwich from DaLat's]

DaLat’s Gateaux and Café (6915 Southside Drive) moved into a location formerly occupied by Coco’s, which was also a Vietnamese bakery. I hadn’t even been inside it until now, and I maybe picked the wrong time to come around, since it was under construction and the main dining room was unusually chaotic and dusty. However, it’s a nice space, with glass cases absolutely full of Vietnamese and French pastries and delicacies. One case, though, was full of not-quite-prefabricated bánh mì, as seen to the left. Your $3.00 will get you a baguette and separately packaged fixings; since I indicated a desire to sit down and eat my lunch there, the counterworker toasted and assembled it herself. Exactly which varieties of sandwich they have aren’t clear: I wasn’t asked which kind I wanted, and ended up with a classic cold-cut thịt variant, and in two different places they listed two different sets of selections. Certainly they have a thịt and a xiu mại, and they might have other fillings besides those two, but their specialty is really in cold meats. Here you can also round out your meal with a coffee, a bubble tea, and a stunning variety of pastries: I added on a bacon onion bun for $1.75, and received a complimentary iced tea (which was nice but unnecessary). Service was prompt, friendly, and marked by limited English; my server enlisted the assistance of two customers to warn me that the sandwich had hot peppers.

The DaLat sandwich was notably on fairly robust bread; it was sliced open and toasted while I watched; were I to simply make my own sandwich from the packaged form this would in fact be under my control. It had a satisfactory crispness on the outside and firm but yielding interior. Visual inspection was mostly encouraging: reasonably generous slices of two varieties of meat were tucked under a satisfactory bed of cilantro and sparing but sufficient hot peppers. Visually I couldn’t identify other veggies, but they were there. Taking a bite into the sandwich gave a better idea of the balance: the cilantro and previously unseen cucumber and carrot provided the necessary freshness, although the daikon wasn’t really detectable, if present at all. The meat exceeded its original promise, seeming to be standard cold-cuts; the redder slices turned out to be pleasantly fibrous pieces of roast pork which were richly flavorful, and the paler items were a nice if not superlative ham. However, the most unusually assertive element of the whole was the mayonnaise. The mayo wasn’t oversweet, steering clear of the dangerously cloying territory the mayo-heavy sandwiches have sometimes fallen into, so the thick creaminess wasn’t too amiss, flavor-balance-wise, although it was a bit distracting from the sandwich’s more subtle elements. In deference to the attribute unambiguously improved by the generous mayo, the sandwich was far from falling into the trap of being too dry, and the mayo was thick enough and the preparation fresh enough that the moisture didn’t ruin the bread’s texture either.

[Photo of a sandwich from Heart & Soy]Heart & Soy (1216 Bardstown Road) is a quite new vegetarian eatery with a pan-East-Asian menu with a Southeastern emphasis. It focuses on unpretentious single-dish fare, while its conjoined twin, a restaurant called Roots, focuses on artisanal small plates. As the name implies, they’re big on soy, and in a glass-screened area in the back, several industrial machines can be seen actually producing their own in-house tofu. With their southeast Asian simple food emphasis, it’s not a surprise that they have a bánh mì (but only one variety, a tofu variant). $5 plus tax gets you a sandwich, and there are a number of other options as well in the $2-$8 range. It was prepared quickly, and came out in about 6 or 7 minutes.

Heart & Soy’s bánh mì is a pretty honest one, despite my usual trepidation about non-exclusively-Vietnamese places as sources. It’s a bit light on cilantro, but not deal-breakingly so. Their baguette is nicely crusted, with a good snap but not overcrispiness. They diverge notably from the formula with prominent lettuce (last seen at Annie Cafe), and fresh raw onions (where pickled onions or diced scallions are more the norm), but neither of these divergences has a deleterious effect on the overall character of the sandwich. I don’t normally have the tofu variants, so I was concerned from a textural standpoint about how a soft and non-meaty protein would work, but as their tofu focus suggests, Heart & Soy knows their stuff when it comes to making a savory and texturally satisfactory soy product. It didn’t resemble meat at all, of course, but it was firm and had a slightly fibrous texture which fundamentally worked, and it was nicely marinated in something fish-sauce-like (possibly actual fish sauce; the sandwich is not marked as vegan). The daikon and carrots were generously provided, although cuke was a bit sparse and wasn’t providing much crispness, so on balance the sandwich felt very much like it got the right tones: cilantro for summer freshness, carrot, daikon, onions and lettuce as crunchy elements (and with the lettuce and raw onion, the lapse on the cucumber front is forgivable), a flavorful protein standing in for the meat, and just the right quantities of fish sauce and mayo to keep the moisture balance right. Tofu isn’t my preferred sandwich protein, but Heart & Soy is definitely doing a respectable and respectful rendition here.

I’m running out of institutions to visit at this point (although I’m open to suggestions!). Currently on deck for research: Cafe Thuy Van (which may or may not serve a bánh mì), NamNam Cafe (for when I drag my ass out to St. Matthews), and Saigon One (which isn’t yet open, and which may not have a bánh mì). I’m open to other suggestions, particularly if there are Asian groceries with a deli counter other than Dong Phuong.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

3 Responses to Bánh mì in Louisville (part 3 of an onging series): Ramsi’s, DaLat’s, Heart and Soy

  1. Lan says:

    i thoroughly enjoyed your Banh Mi series. i also love bánh mì bì (com tham bi is one of my fave rice dishes, which is bi on rice with steamed crab&egg and grilled meat) but when i do banh mi, i usually do the cold cut (banh mi thit).

    in your review for Zanzibar you mentioned that pâté “isn’t extremely common on a “house standard” bánh mì”. that’s the only way i’ve ever had my banh mi thit, whether it was in DC/VA or CA (in LA or San Fran). i’ve always had it with pâté and mayo slathered on the sides with the various cold cuts of meat & pickled veggies.

    i’m jealous that Louisville has so many banh mi options (baltimore has no authentic options, i refuse to try the hipster bastardizations & will trek to VA for my fix), i look fwd to your next review and hopefully be able to glean from you your fave for when i do visit the area with my boyfriend who has family there.

    • Jake says:

      I’ll have to concede my own ignorance and incorrect recollection on the Zanzabar review; having had a few chances to consume a bánh mì thịt since then, I’d concur with you that it’s actually pretty normal. I’m afraid in San Diego I mostly had the grilled meat and shredded pork and only on a few occasions had the cold-cut variants, and simply remembered pâté not being there; guess I presumed it was a French import the Vietnamese hadn’t picked up on.

      Disappointing to hear that Baltimore’s bereft, although it seems you might be able to stop a bit short of Virginia; I grew up in the DC area and remember a few Vietnamese places in suburban Maryland and in the city that were of the right level of diveitudiness to do a good honest sandwich.

      At some point I should probably lay down an actual ranking, but it’s more difficult than I thought! One thing I’ve learned eating so many of them with a specific eye towards detail is that they really do have unique character that varies from locale to locale to a great enough degree that unambiguously dubbing one better than another is dangerous.

      I’ve never had com tham bì; I’ve definitely had some of the permutations of com with bì, but never remember seeing crab as an option. The local rice with bì seems to be a preparation with either a pork chop or grilled pork. I’m still a bit shy of actually asking to go off-menu: for instance, if they’d do it for me, I’d dearly love to make an evening of bò 7 món again, but unlike in San Diego, places around here don’t really have it as an advertised option.

      Thanks for your interest! Always good to see someone as psyched about these things as I am.

  2. Jack L. says:

    BUMP! Dude, get thee to Ba Le’ in Chicago, post haste!

    There you will find the nirvana you seek!

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