Bahn Mi Bar
It’s the Banh: Noodle Bar’s sibling Banh Mi Bar brings the best fresh sandwich value in town.
Thursday, August 23, 2012
What is it about the restaurants in Marina? Have they all somehow locked in 1985 food prices from their distributors? Is the city cutting them some sweetheart tax breaks? Or is that Marina itself is some kind of outlier in the space-time continuum?
Whatever the case may be, nobody’s complaining, because there is no cheaper place to dine anywhere else in the county, and maybe the state. Where else could one scrounge enough change out of the crevices of their car to fund a feast of two eggs, hash browns (or fried rice) and two slices of toast (“Working Man’s Breakfast” at Tommy’s; $.99), and still have enough coin left over for a statistically generous 25-cent tip? Sturdy tacos and burritos at bargain prices? Isidro’s and Papa Chevo’s have you covered. There’s even affordable sushi, admittedly a braver play, at New Tokyo.
The much-awaited Banh Mi Bar, which opened across from Marina’s Noodle Bar a year ago, is the latest addition to the haven of cheap eats, and it already has the bustle of a place that’s permanent. Owned by Kim Nguyen (who also owns the Seaside and Marina Noodle Bars), the restaurant fills a simple, underserved need for the Peninsula that can be summed up in two words: Vietnamese sandwich – aka banh mi.
A fusion of French and Vietnamese influences, banh mi are street food at its best: simple, filling, delicious and cheap, a harmonious marriage of baguette and pate with asian-style meats, herbs and spices. And though one could make a solid argument that they’re the tastiest thing to come out of colonialism (IPA fans might take issue), it’s also the case that all banh mi are not created equal.
Which brings us to Banh Mi Bar, the only restaurant in the area that serves it as its specialty. First quick piece of advice: Call in your order, even if you plan to eat there (the joint was originally take-out only, but there are now a number of small tables topped with bottles of sriracha and hoisin sauce). A friend and I waited five minutes on my first visit, despite having called in the order 10 minutes prior. To be fair, it was hard to blame the two guys hustling in the kitchen, who were in constant motion from the moment we walked in, perhaps working over our sizable order of four banh mi, soup and one banh bao (steamed bun). Other patrons sat waiting as well.
All the banh mi are $3.50 except the specialty ($4), and come with pate, pickled carrots, daikon radish and cucumber, as well as sliced jalepeño, cilantro, mayonnaise, and the all-important sweet sauce (the veggie comes sans pate).
The specialty brought a powerful protein punch of bacon, egg, sausage and steamed pork, and though the tastes worked together nicely, there were one or two too many formidable players competing on the palate.
The veggie banh mi differentiated itself from all other veggie versions I’ve tried with a simple tweak on the filling: Instead of the standard cubed, deep-fried tofu, Banh Mi Bar stuffs their baguette with a thinly-sliced, marinated soy meat substitute that beats tofu in both texture and taste.
Barbecue pork is traditionally the most popular banh mi, and Banh Mi Bar’s did not disappoint with respect to the meat: The pork was juicy, tender and nicely seasoned with a hint of spices.
Though my friend and I enjoyed all three sandwiches, they did all share identical, easy-fix shortcomings: The baguettes, while nicely crisped and baked to the restaurant’s specifications by Seaside’s Cypress Bakery and San Jose’s Bui Phong, seemed like they could have been fresher, and the crunchy, delicious garnishes were unevenly distributed, with one bite tasting different than the next. Most importantly though, there was not enough sauce to make the flavors really party.
The chicken curry soup ($3, $2.50 with a sandwich) was best thing I tried, a savory, golden-colored gravy with hints of sweetness and spice, and swimming with big chunks of chicken, carrot and potato. The subtle curry flavor was beguiling: It was hard to deconstruct the ingredients of spice medley, and even harder to stop eating. The soup has been so popular that it is now a menu fixture, and every few weeks additional soups – like black bean and veggie chicken – are going to be brought into the mix on a rotating basis.
The cucumber salad ($3, $2.50 with sandwich) was fresh, and well-portioned for the price, but was overpoweringly flavored with the fish-sauce vinaigrette with which it was dressed. For those that are not a fan of fish sauce (like me), best avoided.
The barbecue pork banh bao ($3) had a winning, magenta-hued ground pork filling packed with flavors that might have been Chinese five spice, or perhaps star anise, but the heaping bun dominated the portion and left me eating around it, targeting the meat.
While there may have been some imperfections in some of what I tried, it’s also important to do the math: The total order for my two visits was four banh mi (one with a big portion of soup), one banh bao, and one salad, all for a price of $23. There’s even complimentary cucumber – and lemon-infused water in house. (And smoothies like blueberry-strawberry-raspberry and “red gummy bear” for $3, and milk teas and green teas for $2.50.)
That kind of value has the Bar busy of late, and the restaurant is looking to add more menu items in the future.
“We’re just kind of flowing with it right now,” says manager Khoa Li.
It’s not likely that the flow will let up soon, because in terms of quality and quantity, Banh Mi Bar is the best deal in a city of deals. Bar none.
BAHN MI BAR 215 Reservation Road, Marina. •9am-6pm Mon-Sun; closed Wed. • 384-6599.