Bánh mì in Louisville (part 17 of an onging series): Cafe Thuy Van

With this review, I think I may have run out of bánh mì places in Louisville for the time being. Of places I’ve visited, Saigon One, French Indo-Canada, and Morels have all shut down; to fill the food-truck void, Banh Mi Hero has started a mobile operation, running alongside their permanent storefront.

The new tenant of the late, lamented Flabby’s Schnitzelburg may someday get in on the game: the owner envisions a tavern with southeast Asian small plates, and I basically promised that if he had a bánh mì, then I would be there and write it up.

Cafe Thuy Van on UrbanspoonCafe Thuy Van (5600 National Turnpike) has been on my radar for a very long time, but it’s far enough out of my usual orbit that unless I’m already pretty much at Iroquois Park it’s not worth my while to go there. I’ve noted that they have only what appear to be “breakfast” bánh mì on the menu: one with eggs, and one with eggs and sundry pork bits. Both are considerably above my usual expected Beechmont/Iroquois price point, in the mid-seven-dollar range. The place is pretty sparsely furnished but airy (“minimalist” might be the word), family-run with a real sense of being a family joint. Their main menu item is phở, like most Vietnamese sit-down eateries, and the clientèle is mostly Vietnamese. They do solid and reliable entrees and soups in my experience. I rounded out my meal with a lemonade and a bí cuốn, which ended up close to $15 all told. Oh, well.

[Photo of sandwich from Cafe Thuy Van]As for the actual sandwich: well, it grieves me to say that it isn’t one. Now, admittedly, bánh mì does not mean “sandwich”, it means “baguette”, and there are dishes with names involving baguettes, such as bánh mì bò kho, which are not sandwiches but are simply another dish (e.g. bò kho, a beef stew) served with a baguette. But in this case I am authentically confused, possibly due to some sort of roundeye ignorance. This platter certainly seems to have much suggestive of the essential elements of a bánh mì: there’s a sweet sauce, traditional pickled slaw, cucumbers, and protein. The only highly requisite elements missing are the mayo and the cilantro, suggesting this is at the very least a first cousin of what’s been called a bánh mì everywhere else I go. But it’s completely disassembled! I don’t want to come off all snobby, but if I pay twice the going local rate for a sandwich, I kind of expect to have it assembled for me. So getting something which was Not What I Expected kind of soured me on the deal, and it means that by my usual standards, this was somewhat unrecommendable: the actual sandwichcrafting part of a bánh mì is usually what I go on, and if I build it myself than any balance issues are my fault, not theirs (er, except for the balance issue of no cilantro or mayo. What’s with that?) The actual meat was pretty decent, but it’s the same stuff I’ve had on bún and the like. The eggs were eggs. The slaw was good but not transcendent, and the bread… ah, alas, far too many places neglect the bread. Now, Cafe Thuy Van doesn’t really have a lot of bread-based dishes, so it’s not unexpected, but is somewhat disappointing, to have an airy loaf with no real crust.

So, all in all, I can’t recommend Cafe Thuy Van for bánh mì. Maybe someone will set me straight and let me know that similarity to what I’ve been consuming as bánh mì wasn’t actually part of this dish’s ambitions, but certainly it doesn’t really meet my expectations at all.

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

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