Restaurant review: Head to Indochine Cafe in Whitehall for delicious Southeast Asian fare

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

Banh mi and pho are popping up in trendy Columbus restaurants these days, often in nouveau iterations. That was not the case 10 years ago when Indochine Cafe opened. Back then, there were just a few and far-between traditional eateries where you could get those Vietnamese favorites.

One thing hasn't changed over the last decade: Indochine Cafe still makes better banh mi (submarine-type sandwiches) and pho (brothy noodle soup) than most restaurants in Central Ohio.

Indochine distinguishes itself in other ways, too. As its name suggests - "Indochine" is what occupying French colonialists called countries between India and China - this versatile Whitehall restaurant features the cuisines of several Southeast Asian nations (primarily Vietnam and Laos, but also Thailand).

Here's what else stands out: Dining in the casual establishment is like visiting neighbors. This isn't a cliched exaggeration, and anyone who's ever eaten here and experienced the family that operates the restaurant chatting and joking with their patrons will verify as much.

That personal interaction - along with great cooking (but not the sometimes slow service) - helps explain why the place is packed with as many people who grew up eating this kind of food as with those much newer to it.

Several Asian lagers are offered ($4.50), and they make a natural match with the bold dishes. I'm partial to Beerlao, but as Indochine is sometimes out, good old Singha has always been available.

For relatively easy entry into Indochine's cuisine, try the delicious and refreshing Goi Thit Bo (Laotian-style beef salad, $8.50). Served in a boat-shaped bowl, it's strips of warm, chargrilled steak (more tender than not) tossed with lime, onions, cilantro, fish sauce and chili flakes. The tricky balance achieved among spicy, tart, sweet and funky flavors is a sign you're in the right culinary hands.

Attaining harmony, this time from French-inspired and Southeast-Asian-beloved ingredients, makes Indochine's banh mi a fantastic sandwich. A puffy, wonderful baguette fabricated in part with rice to soften its interior is the canvas.

This gets painted with vivid flavors like creamy house butter, mayo, fresh vegetables (lettuce, shredded carrot and daikon), potent adornments (jalapeno, fish sauce, cilantro) and meats, such as homemade mild "bologna" (an appreciated feat of charcuterie), sliced barbecue pork (a little sweet) and earthy pate. Friendly pricing - $3 for a large, one-meat sub (extra meats are .50 each) - makes this a fantastic bargain.

Similarities between the names and the boiled-beef-bone broths of pho (pronounced "fuh") and a renowned French beef stew called "pot au feu" (last syllable similar to "pho") also point to French-Vietnamese affinities.

Indochine's base pho (Pho Tai, $7.50) arrives with wispy rice noodles, scallions, cilantro and still-cooking rare beef slices dunked into flavorful, soothing and steaming beef consomme gently aromatized by five-spice. Slurpers are encouraged to customize it with a provided tray of add-ons (mint, Thai basil, jalapeno, bean sprouts, lime) plus various sauces.

You won't find many French influences in the intense papaya salad (Goi Du Du, $7). Strands of pickly, unripe fruit drenched in sweetened lime juice are pungent from fish sauce and fiery from chili. Sliced tomato, crisp lettuce and crunchy pork rinds add contrast and nuance. I'm a fan, but this classic dish isn't recommended for timid beginners.

Two easy-to-love but hard-to-pronounce entrees are Bun Cha Gio Thit Heo Nuong (a smorgasbord-in-a bowl noodle salad with egg rolls and grilled pork, $8.50) and Pad Se Ew with beef (a killer rendition of the silky, wide-noodle Thai dish with stir-fried green vegetables, $9).

Dessert will be a free Andes brand chocolate mint presented with a refreshingly reasonable bill. Nibble on it and plan your next visit to this unusual and unusually good and friendly restaurant.

Indochine Cafe

561 S. Hamilton Rd., Whitehall