Story and photos by Mark Sterling-Ogle, Feb. 12, 2015.
Every so often, a co-worker or friend will excitedly rush to me with a new eatery they have stumbled upon that “I simply MUST try!” So it was with a new shop that a co-worker of eastern descent referred to as “an Asian sub shop.” Intrigued, I asked about the name but he could not recall, but he returned to work the next day with a take-away menu.
The son of the owner of Little Siagon, a local restaurant in business for 18 years, has ventured out on his own and opened a “Vietnamese eatery” late last year. Located in North Phoenix, on Bell Road just east of I-17, John Le and his lovely wife have something special they have brought to the table: an Asian sub shop called Bánh Mì Bistro.
The Vietnamese sandwich, sometimes called a “bánh mì,” the result of French colonialism in Indochina, combines ingredients from the French (baguettes, pâté and mayonnaise) with native Vietnamese ingredients, such as cilantro, cucumber, jalapeno, pickled carrots and daikon radish.
The classic version, bánh mì thit nguoi, sometimes known as bánh mì đac biet or “special combo,” is made with such Vietnamese cold cuts as sliced pork, pork bellies or cha lua (pork sausage), along with the liver pâté and vegetables.
The small strip mall has plenty of parking, and once you enter the establishment there is a round of welcoming “hellos” from the smiling staff. The clean interior is crisp and modern, with the tech savvy LED menu board front and center. A row of constantly dripping Vietnamese coffee drinks is poised under the menu board – each taking its careful time before being ordered. That is only one of the many wafting aromas that entice as the menu is perused.
My first impression was just how clean the place presented itself. Many neon signs in the window and an open kitchen, bustling with cooks and a bright and airy dining area with minimal, yet stylish, décor just made me feel comfortable.
My second impression was the reasonable pricing of the menu selections. All of the bánh mì sandwiches are priced $5 to $7 and come with homemade aioli, pickled carrots, batons of daikon radish and sliced cucumber. There is also a thin jalapeno, sliced lengthwise, that the owner will advise first timers about, lest it be missed for a surprising kick. Even after being removed from each of my sandwich samples there was still enough residual heat to make things interesting.
On our first visit, we started with a few appetizers ($5 each). My Firecracker Salmon Rolls were served up piping hot with a generous side of red cabbage, deftly doused with rice wine vinegar and a pleasing sesame oil dressing that had me delving into it with reckless abandon. The rolls were hot and crisp, the salmon chunks wrapped in seaweed, which added yet another layer of deliciousness.
My husband played it safe with the egg rolls – deep fried to a golden brown and chock full of tender pork – which came served with a plentiful helping of crisp romaine leaves, sliced daikon, cucumber and a refreshing fish sauce. Every dish absolutely screamed freshness, without a limp veggie in sight.
Next, I opted for the Original Bánh Mì ($6). Pork cold cuts and pâté layered with crunchy vegetables were presented in the most enjoyable baguette I have had in some time. When I asked John Le where he gets such fantastic bread he sheepishly feigned innocence, claiming it to be a trade secret.
On a subsequent visit, I was determined to try the Shaved Snow ($6). A large mound of the fluffy goodness that gets even better with the topping selection provided. First, you choose the flavor and then two toppings. I chose green tea with sweet red beans and mochi balls. Mochi balls are much like chewy marshmallows made from rice flour. The pièce de résistance is the glaze. I was going to go with caramel, however John suggested that sweetened condensed milk was the way to go and the resulting combination was an amazing experience.
No shaved ice or other frozen confection compares to what I ate quiet literally in a moment’s time (while actually making “yummy” sounds, seated alone with my spoon and a bowl of this exceptional frozen treat). And, having started with dessert, I asked for boxes so I could enjoy the remaining items at home once my sugar buzz subsided.
Everything was as fresh tasting as I expected once I revisited it at home. The Lotus Root Salad ($5), which was a crispy and crunchy explosion, was accented with chilled shrimp and chopped peanuts. The thinly sliced root was perfectly seasoned with the sweet, yet tart, house dressing and dotted with mint leaves that added a surprising lift to the palate.
The potstickers ($5), referred to as Goyza in some circles, were beautifully caramelized and plump with seasoned pork. I even enjoyed the few I could not finish the first day, right out of the refrigerator, the next.
My second visit also gave me an opportunity to try another type of bánh mì, this time with Grilled Chicken ($5). Skinny strips of seasoned chicken breast were not only plentiful, but tasty as well, and layered with the usual fresh ingredients.
A variety of specialty drinks, milk teas and smoothies abound and, again, at great prices. A 16-ounce beverage will only run you $3 and you can upsize to a 24-ounce for another $1.50 or add Boba, also known as black pearl tapioca, for $.50.
All specialty drinks are made to order and the cups are sealed with a special machine that laminates them on the spot – a very personalized touch.
Pho lovers need not get excited; even though this is a Vietnamese eatery there are many “No Pho” signs around. But rest assured, I won’t be craving a Jimmy John’s fix in the foreseeable future – not with this gem right on my way to work!
Bánh Mì Bistro
2340 W. Bell Road, Ste. 110, Phoenix
Hours: Mon-Sat, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun, closed