Posts Tagged ‘Cafe Thao Mi’
I completed my quest for local bánh mì on Friday at Indochine Vietnamese Bistro across the street from the U campus. I arrived just about 3pm, which is when they stop serving the sandwich, but had called ahead to let them know that I’d be coming in and to place my order. Although as I began asking around in local Vietnamese restaurants for recommendations and had heard Indochine mentioned several times as an option, when I first checked the menu, there was no mention of bánh mì. The express lunch menu does mention a baguette sandwich, however. Maybe the fact that they didn’t use that name for it was an augur of things to come.
When I placed the order, I was offered options of beef or pork. Since all the sandwiches I’d had so far had been pork, I figured that was the way to go. Here’s the short version of the review: I wasn’t pleased.
The bread used for the sandwich differs greatly from any that I’d seen so far. In fact, I’m fairly sure I recognized them as coming from a local Costco bakery. They are very dense, artisan loaves which have a very uneven texture and are extremely chewy. They are perfect for soaking with garlic oil and broiling to go with a nice Italian meal. I’m actually a real fan of these little loaves for other applications, and have tried using them in a variety of meals over the years. They are a bit of a nightmare for a sandwich, though, and for this sandwich in particular. The bread is so dense that it overwhelms the taste of all of the other sandwich fillings.
The pork used for Indochine’s sandwich is extremely sweet. It had been described to me as “roast pork,” but after looking at it closely, I had other suspicions. It was extremely fatty in an unpleasing way. I suspect it might be poorly cooked pork belly, but I’m not sure. If you told me that it was a lightly smoked, thick-cut bacon marinated in Yoshida’s sauce, that would just about make sense. At any rate, I could have used a lot less fat and gristle and much more lean meat. The flavor of the meat was good, however. There was no sign of any other protein on the sandwich, an automatic ding against it for a pate lover such as I.
The vegetation was spare. On its own it had that distinctive pickled taste, but between the heavy bread and the fat-saddled pork, it got completely lost. Indochine’s sandwich did add in some thinly sliced scallion on top, but there wasn’t so much as a leaf of cilantro to be seen. There were several slices of fresh jalapeno. However, they were so thickly cut that the three bites that contained them were completely dominated with heat, while the rest of the sandwich had none.
And that is it. No mayonnaise, no pate, nothing. It is served with some nicely seasoned matchstick fried potatoes which were, I suspect, supposed to be crispy. Mine appeared to have been sitting long enough that half were soggy, sorry messes and the others were still crisp. However, at over $6, this sandwich is by far the most expensive one I’ve encountered since San Francisco. And, since it is only a couple of dollars cheaper than the gourmet-inspired one at Spice Kit, the Indochine sandwich suffers badly in comparison to it. Had it come close in quality to the ones on the west side, I could see a case to be made for paying a bit extra for those who live close to the U campus. It doesn’t, so if you’re wanting a good bánh mì, you’ll need to drag yourself to Redwood Road.
Which leaves only one question: Cafe Thao Mi or Hong Phat? Since there were several weeks between my sampling both of them, I think I’ll put off that call until I can get the two of them next to each other and conduct a real bun-to-bun comparison.
The latest stop in my quest for a local bánh mì to rival the $8 ones I had in San Francisco took me back over to the west side to Carriage Square. There are a few areas in Utah that fascinate me, as they were clearly created by the same developer with some sort of chain in mind. I grew up in Sandy and there is a nearly identical shopping area called Union Square. Same layout, with a long L-shaped row of buildings tracing one boundary of the property, a block of buildings facing it from the opposite corner bordering 4100 S and Redwood Road, and parking between them. There was more than one business I frequented in Union Square – Winchell’s Donuts chief among them – so as I drive into Carriage Square, it always feels somewhat familiar.
Cafe Thao Mi is on the south side of the square. My wife and daughter hung out in the car while I ran in. I realized on the way in that I didn’t check to make sure they do orders to go. I needn’t have worried, as their menu is a big, deli-style board on the wall. There was a group before me waiting, so I took a look around the menu.
It is huge. Although I didn’t get through the entire thing before it came time to order, there were definitely some tantalizing dishes on it that merit further investigation. The section that I was interested in is on the top left. There are at least half a dozen bánh mì variations available, all differing in the protein on the sandwich. Since my wife and I were sharing, I chose the special combination with pork roll, pate, jamon, and grilled pork and one with just pork roll. My wife and I had just been talking about how much we miss the green papaya salad and spring rolls from Out the Door, and I notice several kinds of spring rolls on the menu, but opt for just the sandwiches since we’re heading to a birthday party where there will be food.
As has been the trend thus far in Salt Lake, the sandwiches are a bargain. They are on the menu for $2.80 each, so for $6 even I’m out the door with two of them.
The bread used to make these sandwiches were smaller than those at either Hong Phat or Tay Do. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, as it means a better filling-to-bread ratio. As with both of the other sandwiches, I could have used a bit more of the pickled vegetation on mine. The meats were delicious, but I strongly preferred the complexity of the combination over the pork roll. I also really liked the pate on the sandwiches we had. It had a much bolder flavor than those at the other two bánh mì stores.
After the sandwiches were gone, I really regretted not grabbing some spring rolls. I’ll definitely be back to explore that big, beautiful menu.
As for which sandwich I preferred overall, I’m going to have to do some additional tasting. Once I get a Hong Phat and a Cafe Thao Mi next to each other and compare head-to-head, I’ll update. But before that, I’ve got one last place to hit: Indochine Vietnamese Bistro across from the U campus.
Spice Kit could have easily ruined me.
The pedigree of the bánh mì sandwich is more Banksy than Botticelli. A strange mash-up that reflects the history of Vietnam, it features an away team of French elements like crusty bread, mayonnaise, and liver pate coupled with roast pork, pickled vegetables, and greens from the Vietnamese home team. The combination of fatty umami from the pate and pork and acid from the pickled daikons and carrots makes for a nice balance in good hands. It’s also easy to see how this became popular street food, as it is a sandwich containing an ingredient list that can be prepared ahead of time and assembled into the final sandwich to order.
Unfortunately for me, my first bánh mì experience came by way of Thomas Keller and Ron Siegel. Two of their proteges, Will Pacio and Fred Tang, are behind Spice Kit. And while it might make some sense having two French-trained chefs making a sandwich that has some Gallic roots, the bánh mì at Spice Kit bears all the delicious indicia of its fine dining origins.
That being said, it did set me on the path to find a local version of the sandwich. After a bit of calling around, the universally praised option came first.
3086 S Redwood Rd
West Valley City, UT 84119
This tiny market on the west side of Salt Lake City appears to be a converted convenience store. There was a distinctively fishy smell that hit me as I entered, the source of which was presently clear: there’s a large fish counter in the back, as well at least two live crustacean selections housed in boxes on the ground. I hung a right at the counter and was at their hot food area.
I was surprised at the large selection available here. Next time I stop by, I’ll need to avail myself of some of the tasty looking spring rolls. This trip is all about the sandwich, though. I noted that there are several versions, so I may have to branch out and give others a try in the future, but I figured it made sense to start with the house special.
The house special version is their number four. I ordered one and when she looked confused and asked a question that I didn’t understand, I clarified by holding up four fingers. The prep area for the food is miniscule. It’s actually difficult to fathom how all of the food under the heat lamps could possibly have been made in the tiny kitchen. After a few minutes, she handed me a rather large bag and, on peering inside, I saw that there are many more than one sandwich. Thinking she may have mixed my order up, I clarified that I only ordered one. She separated one from the pack, puts it into a bag, and I was off to pay up front.
It was only when I was driving and about five blocks away that I realized what had happened: when I held up four fingers to her question that I didn’t catch, she took that to mean that I wanted four sandwiches. Since they were a steal at $3 each, I feel horrible at the mix up and wish I’d paid for them all.
And then I took the first bite and felt bad that I hadn’t paid for all of them for a whole different reason. That is one seriously tasty sandwich. It comes wrapped in a small piece of parchment to hold the fixings inside, secured around the sandwich with the rubber band. The bread roll is huge. Once I started eating, though, it’s clear that it is mostly air and probably even less bread substance than in your average deli sandwich.
The fillings are deliciously balanced. I love the pate they are using but didn’t get a chance to ask if they made in house. The pickled veggies are crisp if a bit sparse and are dominated by daikon and cucumber. In fact, I could have used more fillings in general to compliment the massive roll. Then again, my standard of comparison cost over $8 at Spice Kit, so for the price, this is plenty of food for the cost. I would probably have ordered two and ordered extra peppers had I not been on my way to a second purveyor.
Tay Do Supermarket
3825 S Redwood Rd
Salt Lake City, UT 84119
My experience at Tay Do Supermarket was less enjoyable. Although the rather large structure houses a much more spacious and organized market that has about 75% less stank on it, the product just didn’t measure up. I wandered through the store to the service counter in the back. The lone woman working a rather well-appointed deli area asked me to wait while she finished up making a bubble tea for the lone other customer.
Ten minutes later she was ready to take my order. Yes, ten minutes. One would think she was out back splitting durian by hand or something, but as far as I could tell, she was simply applying whipped cream to the concoction. When she finally took my order, I asked for their house special with extra pate. She looked rather annoyed, and wandered into the back area. Another five minutes later, she walked to the front counter where, if I’m not mistaken, she grabbed a sandwich from off the counter that appeared to have already been prepared and wrapped in plastic wrap. I guess somebody must have employed remote viewing skills to presage my interest in extra pate when making the sandwich before I arrived.
The sandwich cost $.50 less than at Hong Phat. It was about half as enjoyable. The pork loaf substance that was used instead of roasted pork was fairly terrible even by packaged lunch meat standards. The vegetation was sparse and barely pickled at all. There was a rather lush application of cilantro, but it was enough that it nearly overpowered the taste of meat. Tay Do uses a rather more spongy bread than Hong Phat, or perhaps it just seemed that way after having sat in the plastic wrap for a mysterious period of time. I’ll not be back to investigate.
I still have a couple of locations to visit before I call my search for perfection complete: I’m told that Cafe Thao Mi in Carriage Square and Indochine Vietnamese Bistro up by the U of U campus both make bánh mì, so I’ll plan to update when I visit both places. But at this point, if Hong Phat ends up being the best I find locally, I’ll be a pretty happy camper.