The only banh mi I’ve ever eaten were the ones I made with my own two hands. It’s a little backward to first try this amazing Vietnamese sandwich by making one for myself (and for a few others, too), but it was a darn good approximation. After julienning the daikon and carrot, gently pickling it in a glass jar, sweetening the mayo, marinating the pork and tofu in lemongrass, and picking up the bread from Jasmine Deli, the ingredients and I were close pals and I was able to create more or less the pinnacle of banh mi deliciousness.
Ever since then, I’ve been daydreaming about banh mi, about grabbing one from Jasmine Deli after work or finding a good reason to head over to University, but for whatever reason, I never got around to it. When B asked me out on a third date, I got excited when I realized I could suggest Jasmine Deli, a small restaurant on Eat Street known for having one of the best banh mi in town. His new apartment is across the street from the MIA and walking distance to the deli. At last, the banh mi would be mine!
B and I, both well-versed in the menu and reviews before we arrived, walked inside the small storefront relieved to see there were plenty of places to sit. It was late and we were hungry. The owner, a friendly guy named Luke who I knew only through their adorably empty facebook page, came by and offered us a seat. Talking a little under his breath, he said, “We’re out of veggie eggrolls and bread” and simply ducked away.
Wait. “Did I hear him right?” I said to B, aghast. No bread? I called out after Luke.
“Not so fast! Did you say that you’re out of bread?”
“Yes, I’m sorry. It’s late in the day and I order for freshness.”
And with that, my little dream was unceremoniously dashed. No banh mi. I recovered by consoling myself with the fact that there was always pho, so I decided to pick one. The menu listed about 32 kinds of soup, and within the forest of heavily accented Vietnamese, I didn’t see the word “pho” anywhere.
Luke came back to take our order. “Everyone raves about your pho,” I said, “but I don’t see it listed on the menu. Are all of these soups pho?”
He corrected me in broken English. “I don’t serve pho. Ask everyone in this restaurant what they think my soup is, and they’ll say pho. But pho is made with beef broth. All my broth is made with vegetables or chicken. I suggest the chicken. It’s mild. Everyone loves chicken.”
Now that was too much information for my hungry head to handle. I asked Luke for a few more minutes and turned to B. “Let’s go over that again,” I said. “Everyone is wrong about the pho?”
“Yes,” he said, eloquently recapping what Luke just told us. Knowing my hopes were dashed again, B kicked in and conquered the menu.
“You don’t like mild, so let’s not get the one he recommended. Let’s get this one,” he said, pointing to the rice noodle soup with BBQ pork, chicken, shrimp, fish cake, and calamari.”
“What else?” B said. “I don’t want to disappoint you by ordering something that you aren’t into.” I said I wanted to get the classic Vietnamese combination of beef, cucumber, cilantro, and rice noodle. We found it on the menu: vermicelli noodle salad with charbroiled beef.
We also decided to get two appetizers, tamarind tofu and crispy pork egg rolls.
Dear Luke came back yet again to take our order. I rattled off our choices and asked for bubble tea, which B was excited to see on the menu.
“Sorry, I don’t have bubble tea either. . . but you can go to my new cafe,” he said with a charming smile, pointing to the north, knowing at this point he sounded like a salesman.
Simultaneously amused and defeated, B and I placed our order and settled in over two glasses of water, satisfied that we divided up the menu the best we could.
We loved the sweet tamarind tofu, especially when contrasted with a bite of something spicy. The pork eggrolls were good, but we didn’t see anything special about them. The soup was fulfilling and fresh, but in retrospect, I wouldn’t order it again. Too many proteins for one bowl (or for one girl). The vermicelli noodle salad was the clear winner, with the charbroiled bits of beef playing nicely off the cool noodles and fresh herbs. As B kept grabbing the best bits of charred meat and giving them to me with his chopsticks, I noticed something was wrong.
Luke came by to ask how everything was. “Good, I said. But why are there no cucumbers in the vermicelli? That’s the best part.”
“Must be out of those, too!” he said, at this point probably as amused by the evening as we were.
B and I had a laugh together and finished off our meal. “You know what I like about you?” he said, leaning in. “You understand how food is related to everything else in life. You don’t look at it as a separate thing.” And I didn’t realize until later what I great reply that really was.