Bánh Mì Bonhomie
2532 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis
Lots of dark and regrettable things go on in the kitchens of America's restaurants, but none is more underreported than the fact that so many restaurant folk never leave the well-trod paths of their very own footprints.
I have so much evidence of this, I could choke on it.
And sometimes I do. Last winter I foolishly talked for an hour to a pizza place owner who insisted he had the best pie in town, but hadn't been to any of the award magnets because he knew better. And stupid me, I drove up there and was actually surprised to find what can only be described as saltine-cheddar-ketchup melts. Alex Roberts, the chef from Alma, recently told me about an intern he had who came to train at the restaurant but refused to taste fish, suspecting it would be icky. "And you want to be a chef?" wondered Roberts. "It's going to be a long, hard road. Or a very short one."
Local Vietnamese restaurants often choose to walk that same sort of a long, hard road. They hope to attract moneyed Minnesota patrons, but go about it by printing menus with only the spottiest English, open their doors in distant white-flight neighborhoods where the residents would sooner eat straw than experiment with an unknown cuisine, and, when those two strategies fail to draw crowds, add a section of Chow Mein Hut classics, apparently oblivious to the fact that the old Chow Mein huts are dying faster than ladybugs in December.
Actually, I do remember when I felt bad for those places, but my sympathies have dwindled after seeing it again and again. Did my heart harden just because familiarity breeds contempt? Or is it because it's not hard to figure out what the population of the Twin Cities is looking for in an Asian restaurant: Just take a one-day tour of some of our phenomenally successful local ones, like Rainbow Chinese, Fuji-Ya, or Big Bowl--they're all about high-quality ingredients, a stylish room, and an allegiance to the core of the cuisine. Look to LeAnn Chin for the key to the rest of the puzzle, because above all, LeAnn Chin is a model of consistency and accessibility.
So it was with a really disproportionate amount of excitement that I learned that sister and brother Le and Vinh Truong worked, respectively, at LeAnn Chin and Big Bowl. Is that why this tiny little shoebox of a restaurant uses fresh egg noodles and sliced chicken breast in their enormous chicken-noodle soup? This bowl is a beauty: chewy, fresh egg noodles, lots of fresh-torn cilantro, addictive, pungent little snips of fried garlic floating all over the top--just great. Get the seafood version, and it comes with pretty little crosshatched tubes of squid, big fat shrimp, and chewy fish balls.
When I talked to Le Truong on the phone for this story, she explained to me that the reason their soups are so good is that they make all their stocks fresh every day. I believe it. The broths are rich and complex, not merely salty, like so many noodle-house broths. Wontons and meatballs are house-made, and, in another example of just bone-deep getting the whole restaurant thing, are available in non-entrée sized portions-- still big, but not huge--and cost only about $3, so you can actually order soup and another thing, as opposed to soup or something, the usual situation.
I find it nearly impossible not to make that other thing a bánh mì, one of those Vietnamese sandwiches that are oh-so-French. I like Jasmine's meatball bánh mì ($2.50), black-peppery pork meatballs stuffed into an airy toasted baguette with marinated, julienned carrots, daikon, jalapeños, cilantro, and a saucy mayonnaise. Or the regular cold-cut bánh mì, roast-pork cold cuts with the same vegetables ($1.75). Boy, do I love these sandwiches: They've got every single sensation packed into one hand-held meal--the hot, the cold, the spicy, the crunchy, the sour, the sweet, and the cheap! They're better than any other bánh mì I've found on the Minneapolis side of the river, especially because they come made to order, the bread just crisped in the oven, and they're served prettily, cut on the bias, presented on a little oblong tray.
A comforting bowl of soup and a bewitching sandwich and you walk out for under $7? There it is, that restaurant thing again: Boost your check average, make people happy, it's a win-win situation.
And so are the spring rolls! Full of fresh herbs that change with the seasons, fresh and delicate, made to order, they are easily some of the best in town. There are vegetarian items available on the menu, but the kitchen also gets vegetarian cooking well enough to put together noodle salads with mock duck, vegetarian soups, and even hot vegetarian bánh mì--an off-the-menu special request that seems to be developing cult status in the neighborhood. What it is is mock duck and onions, sautéed in a brown sauce, served stuffed into that heated French bread with marinated carrots, cilantro, and a little mayonnaise--a very nice addition to the vegetarian scene for $2.50. Le Truong says the restaurant will be expanding its vegetarian bánh mì options once things calm down, sometime after the Vietnamese New Year.
Everything at Jasmine is directed at that holiday right now. Le and Vinh Truong's mom used to be one of the leading suppliers of the traditional boiled cakes that you need to properly usher in the Vietnamese New Year, Le Truong told me, and now the restaurant has taken over her business. In addition to these elaborate New Year's treats, which take eight hours to cook, Jasmine also makes an enormous, ever-changing selection of the super-sweet tapioca desserts and dessert-drinks that are so popular in Southeast Asia. Look through the glass counter for the day's selection, made with some combination of tapioca, tea, seaweed, taro, vegetables, various sweet beans, and fruit. As a beverage, these tea-based drinks--called boba, pearl tea, or bubble tea because of the tapioca pearls that bob in them--are super hot on the coasts, where boba tea-houses are exponentially expanding, and Jasmine is the first place I know of in town offering anything comparable.
So there--yet another reason to go: Good, cheap, and cutting edge!
I know, I know, I'm up to my ears in exclamation points here. And yes, I know I get wildly enthusiastic about something new every four weeks, but I am telling you I have been wildly enthusiastic about Jasmine for a good four solid months--which is like 67 years in restaurant-critic years, so fickle is my tribe. It really is the place I go most often personally right now. Yeah, it's a tiny, five-table restaurant in a spic-and-span fluorescent box and the TV is always on. But the bùn noodle salads (around $5) are also really great, prettily put together with different patches of cucumber, rice noodle, carrot, cilantro, and whatever meat, fish, or tofu product you care for. The fish sauce and rice-vinegar dressing that goes on them is made with good-quality ingredients and tastes perfectly sharp and harmonious, and the plastic bowls they're served in look ceramic, look classy, and really make you feel like you're spending more than you are.
To be perfectly honest, they also kind of make you feel like you're at Big Bowl. Which seems great, because one of the great, underreported facts of life is that if you can learn from other people's successes, you're already winning the game.
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