Bánh mì in Louisville (part 10 of an onging series): Tom+Chee

This maybe needs a bit of explanation. My girlfriend is the manager of a Louisville local quick-service eatery, and at one point, when I was talking about running out of bánh mì places to visit, she idly said “we’ve got a bánh mì on the specials list.” I was agog, for reasons which will become clear in the review proper. Apparently actually rotating this special into production was going to have to wait until they got a recipe for one of the elements, but I begged her to give me a heads-up when they finally featured it. And then the magical day rolled around, and I had to go see.

(Disclaimer: as suggested above, I have a personal connection here. I don’t think that should affect my ability to judge fairly, but readers have a right to know)

[Photo of a sandwich from Tom+Chee]Tom+Chee on UrbanspoonTom+Chee (1704 Bardstown Road, 319 West Cardinal Boulevard, and several out-of-town locations) is a small chain out of Cincinnati specializing in their namesake foods, tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Their grilled cheese is in the recent vein of gourmet grilled cheese, and they have sandwiches with a good variety of cheeses, as well as meats and vegetables and the slightly gimmicky addition of potato chips. Their rotating list of specials includes a “mushroom bahn [sic] mi” for $4.50, a spelling which at least puts them in goodinfamous company with Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar.

Knowing what I did about Tom+Chee’s signature foodstuff, I went in fully expecting a crime against authenticity. My connoisseurship of Vietnamese sandwiches is somewhat incomplete, but three significant facts about them would be: (1) the sandwiches themselves are not typically grilled, (2) they, like most southeast Asian food, do not contain cheese, and (3) they are made on a long roll of the baguette/bâtard variety and not on square American sandwich bread. That obvious objection having been anticipated and dispensed of, the only questions that remain are: is this sandwich decent in its own rights, and, up to the obvious departures, does it actually capture some of the appropriate essence of a bánh mì?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes, on both counts. As to the first, Tom+Chee generally does pretty respectable, tasty sandwiches. They’re by no means transcendent, but they’re good, hearty sandwiches made with mostly well-chosen ingredients. But in the context being discussed here, the question of whether they exemplify a bánh mì’s qualities is more relevant.

To me, a bánh mì is defined chiefly by contrasts in texture and a somewhat cohesive flavor profile. The texture is of a number of individual, easily teased-apart elements: the snap of the crust around the softer interior of the roll, the vegetative crunch of cucumber, carrot, and daikon, the mouth-teasing insubstantiality of cilantro, and the firmness of the protein. The flavor is overall a lightly summery one, with the herbal freshness of cilantro and cucumber blending with the tanginess of the fish sauce and pickles. The jalapenos and the mayo are somewhat contrasting elements, but for the most part the flavors of a bánh mì are parts of a well-integrated whole.

So, how does Tom+Chee meet these expectations? Surprisingly well from a textural standpoint. The toast is of course not quite like a baguette at all, but it has the same sort of surface frangibility that a goot robust loaf should have in contrast to the softer interior. Shredded carrots and cucumber rounds provide the right elements of crunch, although a cucumber spear is slightly more satisfactory, and the mushrooms have something of the firm chewiness that the meat element should have. Notably, the textural element I feared, the stringiness of the cheese, seemed pretty minimal in this particular concoction: either the grillmaster had a light hand or the other elements kept it largely subdued. On the subject of flavor similarity, however, Tom+Chee is on much shakier ground. Unpickled carrots aren’t really a proper stand-in, flavor-profile-wise, for the carrot-and-daikon mix in a usual sandwich, and the lack of cilantro definitely reduces the overall fresh summertime herbal profile even further. Mushrooms are a kind of dubious choice as a protein stand-in, too: they have an aggressive and not-quite-right flavor.

However, under the circumstances, I’m willing to praise Tom+Chee for what they did get right. Ultimately, as I knew going in, a grilled-cheese bánh mì could not possibly be anything but a gimmick, and, for what it’s worth, within the parameters of the gimmick, it’s actually a pretty good piece of work. If they had other uses for cilantro, I would totally suggest adding some, but since they don’t use it elsewhere, it’s difficult for me to suggest a modification that would actually be plausibly realizable from their inventory and product line.

Anyways, the gauntlet has been thrown on quirky, intrinsically inauthentic takes on the bánh mì. Who’s next? My money’s on Tony Boombozz (and if they’re reading: make something you call a “bánh mì pizza”, and you will have at least one customer!).

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

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