Saturday, April 25, 2015

In Search of the Perfect Banh Mi

I was grouchy before I even got to the birthday party last night. There were some reasons: too much exercise made me overtired; my friend forgot to tell me the location of the party had changed restaurants, meaning I turned up at the wrong one; I was in a position where I had to be polite to someone I wasn't in the mood for. None of these life-threatening events, but added up they made me feel prickly with bad-humour. 
The party (when I got to it) was fun and my bad mood faded, but it was with relief that I hit the sack, feeling the toxic mood and tiredness still in my body. I'll sleep it off, I reasoned, and wake up feeling fine
Cue this morning, and the feeling that all was still not fine. Sometimes you're just going to feel tired and groggy- could be a cold, could be fatigue. Who knows? I figured if I was stuck with a less-than-fine feeling I might as well try to distract it, and I knew the perfect distraction: head up Kingsway to find the perfect Banh Mi. 

Kingsway is Pho restaurants and beauty parlours, coffee shops and dusty little businesses that look as if no one's touched the window displays in years. Generations, even.
Nifty old appliances in the window of Y. Franks
Kingsway is also Little Saigon. Some local merchants were angry when city council re-branded part of Cedar Cottage, but it really is pretty fitting. Vietnamese restaurants, nail parlours, delis and groceries are very prevalent between Fraser and Victoria, which is as far as I walked today. 
As I walked, the weather reflected my mood: sun lurked hopefully, but black clouds kept rolling by. I was alternately glad of my thick jacket and overheated by it, sometimes in the space of a few minutes. 
I love Vietnamese food, and heartily miss living across the street from Le Petit Saigon, where I ate a Number 49 (beef on skewers, grated carrot, daikon and cucumber, vermicelli) pretty much once a week. But in all my life, I've never eaten a Banh Mi, or Vietnamese sub sandwich. Now that I live so near to Little Saigon, how could I not investigate this intriguing combination of French-influenced baking and Asian meats? 
My first stop was Ba Le Deli & Bakery, which is all of five minutes from my house, at an intersection where uber-Hipster coffee, old-school Mexican, Mexi-fusion, East Indian pizza, French cuisine, Caribbean-Japanese diner and more all meet in a glorious multicultural melange. I was all ready to order... and then I saw the Cash Only sign at the till (this would be a common theme all along Kingsway). I told them I'd be back, and started walking towards Victoria, where I remembered seeing a Vietnamese restaurant years ago with such mouthwatering photos of subs in their window that I'd wanted to visit for ages, and never got around to it. 
The stores along this stretch of Kingsway are, for the most part, small businesses that seem to cater to a loyal following and aren't that interested in attracting newbies. Many of the cafes look dark and dusty- they might be making the best food in the 'hood, but you'd never know it from the presentation. I wanted to give them all the benefit of the doubt... but I didn't want to waste my money, either. I kept going, drawn by my memories of the large-windowed and attractive cafe I'd seen years ago. 
Past Cedar Cottage Coffee, where I met my guy 6 months ago (I noticed that Crow Salvaged Goods, an interesting art/furniture store we'd checked out that day, hadn't lasted as long as our relationship, although a check of the internets suggests that it was meant to be a temporary store). Past the Tipper, where I've eaten several delicious breakfasts. Here I was at Victoria... and I couldn't find the cafe of my memories. There were a couple of Vietnamese places (including the infamous and long-renamed Pho Bich Nga), but none of them had mouthwatering photos of banh mi in the window. Either it had closed, or it was under new management. Back to Ba Le for me! 
The clouds came back, making everything look darker and more dramatic. 

I kind of wanted to try the Dragon Lord Cafe, which has a powerful name that doesn't match the cutesy cartoon animals on its awning, but it was closed. Since I was feeling fuzzy-headed and tired, I decided that Vietnamese Coffee, swimming with condensed milk, would cure what ailed me. I dropped in to another cafe that was painted lime-green inside, and ordered one to go. Sadly, I picked the wrong cafe... and the wrong coffee. I forgot to ask for it hot, so I got a cold one, the condensed milk glomming sulkily onto the ice cubes and the coffee bitter. Four bucks wasted. 
Ba Le smelled of fresh bread and I was intrigued by the dumplings, leaf-wrapped rice, and dessert-like things at the till. Since I don't know my way around Vietnamese deli meats and the word "headcheese" does NOT do anything for my appetite, I stuck with a safe sandwich option: grilled pork with veggies... and more coffee. "It's very strong and very sweet," the woman at the till warned me briskly. "Perfect!" I replied, and sat down to wait. It took a while, but when the sub arrived it was everything I'd hoped for: tender pork with just enough sweet sauce, the lightly-pickled trio of carrot, cuke and daikon; cilantro and spicy peppers, packed into a warm, toasted baguette. Heaven. 

I wolfed it down, along with the coffee, which was- as promised- very strong and VERY sweet. It didn't totally wake me up, and whatever bug I'm fighting is still lurking, but I think I've found a Vietnamese treat to rival my old love, the Number 49. And since it's five minutes from my house, and a mere $4.50, you can bet I'll be back. 

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