Inspired by its history as a French colony, local Vietnamese cuisine combines fresh ingredients and plenty of spice with familiar dishes
In 2006, Mi Li Cafe (then called Mi Mi Cafe) opened in its inconspicuous Columbus Square strip mall location with a menu of exactly two items: banh mi sandwiches and bubble tea. Owner Nga Tat made every sandwich she sold herself.
It caught on quickly, as good things do, and over the years, Mi Li's popularity has led her to expand her kitchen, menu and staffing.
In spite of this success, Nga Tat still makes her own pate and mayonnaise from scratch, still crisps each baguette in the oven before serving and still makes each and every banh mi sandwich with her own hands at a special sandwich station far removed from the rest of the kitchen.
"I like to make each sandwich exactly," Nga Tat says, and as many a satisfied long-time customers can attest, consistency has never flagged.
Pate, mayonnaise and baguettes may not instinctively sound like the makings of a Vietnamese dish, but they speak directly to the Southeast Asian country's history as a French colony, not to mention the cuisine's ingenuity in adapting foreign ingredients to satisfy its own preferred flavor profiles. In addition to the aforementioned ingredients, the banh mi sandwich also includes three types of pork, daikon-carrot relish, cilantro, fresh jalapeno pepper slices and a splash of a sauce that Nga Tat regards as secret.
As a whole, the effect is mesmerizing. Rarely do vegetal freshness and meaty richness speak so clearly in the same dish while complementing each other so well. The range of textures-from the crunch of the baguette's crust to the tender pork to the crispy vegetables-harmonize beautifully. The banh mi has been called the perfect sandwich, and Mi Li's version makes a pretty good case for it.
This is not to say, though, that they're the only game in town, or even the only good option. Huong, Indochine and Buckeye Pho put out solid examples, with Huong's foot-long $5.50 version being the indisputable value choice.
And Huong has far more than that. Their banh xeo, in particular, is a standout.
Banh xeo starts with a plate-sized crispy pancake made of rice flour and turmeric, which is folded over and generously filled with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts. Eaten traditionally, pieces of this assembly are separated from the whole and placed into provided lettuce leaves and sauced with nuoc cham-an intriguingly complex and pungent sauce made of lime, garlic, sugar, fish sauce, chile and shredded carrot. (Some may find its aroma unusual, but for most dishes the flavor is essential. If it's provided, and it will be for many options, its use is highly recommended.) The banh xeo is then further garnished to taste from a humongous and varied plate of fresh herbs and other garnishes.
If that sounds like you'll be provided with a full Chipotle-line worth of ingredient options at the table, then we're getting to the core of something essential about the cuisine.
The first bite of banh xeo should exhibit a wide range of textures as a rich, pungent and herbal freshness dance in the mouth. Not unlike the banh mi, a disarmingly wide array of flavors find an improbably sublime balance.
Pho is often regarded as the signature dish of Vietnam and starts with a big bowl of a hearty and lightly seasoned broth containing a generous serving of toothsome rice vermicelli noodles. The broth can be either beef or chicken-based, and you can select from a wide variety of protein toppings including cooked beef, raw beef (sliced carpaccio-thin, it cooks in the hot broth), meatballs, tendon and tripe. Atop that, select from the included herb plate and the wide variety of sauces at the table.
A quick aside: The herb plate, once you move past the banh mi and into the heart of any Vietnamese menu, is nearly ubiquitous. Its components change some from dish to dish and restaurant to restaurant, but expect to find cilantro, mint, basil and often bean sprouts. The idea is to tear off pieces from the pile of fresh sprigs and use them to taste. It'll be an experiment, initially, but a delicious one-remember it's customization, and no two people do it exactly the same.
Now, back to pho, which, in its popularity is also one of the most controversial of dishes. Devotees of a particular preparation defend their choice with the same fervor as one might with pizza. (See the "Pho Down" sidebar for our take on local favorites.)
Bun, bun cha, rice vermicelli noodles-the name varies from restaurant to restaurant, but the concept is the same; a bed of lettuce and other vegetables topped with cold rice noodles and your choice from a variety of protein toppings, served with a side of nuoc cham. Summery and refreshing, this dish is particularly good at Indochine, especially when ordered with their wonderfully marinated grilled pork and crispy sliced egg roll as toppings.
The above should suffice as a reasonable introduction to Vietnamese cuisine, but if you'd like to venture even further into exotic territory, the banh bot loc (tapioca dumplings with pork and shrimp) at Huong is a delicious start. Mi Li's bun bo hue (spicy and fragrant beef soup) is another tempting option, though not for the spice averse. Desserts are rarely emphasized on Vietnamese menus, but Mi Li's che ba mau (sweet beans in coconut milk) and Huong's chuoi boc nep (toasted banana wrapped in sweet rice served in coconut milk with peanuts) are both worthy tastes. If you're open to new experiences in coffee, any Vietnamese restaurant's cafe sua (coffee with sweetened condensed milk) will test the limits of tolerance for sweetness and caffeinated potency, and maybe make you feel better for it.
Bethia Woolf, owner of Columbus Food Adventures, blogs about the ethnic dining scene at alteatscolumbus.com.'Pho Down'
Ask five solidly credible foodies about which restaurant makes the best pho in town (if our experience was any indication), and you will likely get five different answers.
In our quest to determine which pho really is superior, a side-by-side test of all nominated renditions was arranged. To be fair, we sampled only the beef broth version of every restaurant's pho, placing the bowls in a line to be assessed by our panel of tasters.
The judges' criteria were, in order of importance: broth flavor and texture, meat flavor and quality, variety and amount of meat and toppings, and overall flavor of the pho once assembled.
As the foundation for the entire dish, there was a surprising degree of variation among the broths in particular. Some were conspicuously sweet, some thin, and one tasted strongly of beef bouillon.
After our impressions were collected, we found that our top three bowls were very close in scoring, and the remaining two rated far behind. Here's how we ruled:
Huong: Rich broth with well-balanced five spice seasoning. Beef and other toppings were deemed to be most flavorful of the group. Noodles were most appealingly cooked, tender but still toothsome.
Pho Asian Noodle House and Grill: Pleasantly meaty, notably oniony broth that was perhaps, on its own, equal to or even preferable to Huong's. Very generous amount of noodles, but the quality of toppings seemed lacking in this group.
Mi Li Cafe: Broth was rich and fragrant with five spice, but a bit on the sweet side. Generous quantities of beef were provided, other toppings were solid.
Tai's: Strong, salty broth with an off note we couldn't quite put our finger on. Meat and other toppings were limited.
Buckeye Pho: The broth tasted overwhelmingly of bouillon rather than stock, and was conspicuously thin. Accompaniments were fine, but couldn't compensate for broth.