Bun Mee Phan serves impossibly good banh mi
Over the years, my enthusiasm for a certain kind of cozy restaurant has waned. I’m talking about that unpromising category of dining establishment invariably referred to, usually by some well-meaning convert, as “a great little hole in the wall.” I’m sorry to report that, in my experience, most holes in the wall are not merely lacking in greatness — they should be patched, painted over and forgotten.
Still, I can’t help but pay attention when multiple people suddenly start extolling the same hole in the wall at the same time. And so I closed one eye and walked into the two-month-old Bun Mee Phan, the tiny Northland banh mi shop owned by Jimmy Phan and his girlfriend and business partner, Kaylee Nguyen.
And finally, here it is: a great hole in the wall. The Vietnamese food here, beyond just that key sandwich, is excellent.
There are six tables, mostly two-tops, inside the restaurant, which can feel claustrophobic when full. Better to sit at one of the two patio tables outside the venue, which are delightful right now, before the season changes and the heat truly arrives. The counter is nearly as cluttered as my own home, dominated by a chubby gilded Buddha and a clear plastic case where Phan displays the house-made bánh tiêu — or “hollow doughnut,” as he prefers to call it.
This saucer-sized round bread isn’t sugary, like a traditional American doughnut, but is instead a yeasty, sesame-dusted, deep-fried flatbread with only a hint of sweetness. At Bun Mee Phan, it, rather than the traditional French baguette, can be filled with the banh mi’s familiar ingredients: meat, pork, chicken or tofu; cilantro; cucumber slices; jalapeño pepper; pickled carrots; and daikon radishes.
I prefer the more classic banh mi sandwich, with its crusty baguette, and it’s also available here, on bread baked at Le Monde bakery. The hand-held dates back to the long French occupation of Vietnam, and it melds two different culinary cultures, along with a variety of marvelous textures (crunchy, soft, chewy) and flavors (the spice of the pepper, the tang of the vinaigrette). In the era of the “artisan” burger — don’t get me started — the banh mi truly is a work of art, practically sculptural and vividly colorful. In this case, it’s also perfectly delicious.
The signature “special” version here is made with ham, a paper-thin slice of house-made pate, head cheese and steamed pork. Among the other variations available is an outstanding version centered on chicken that’s been sautéed in fragrant lemongrass.
These basic ingredients, including grilled pork, sautéed tofu, Chinese barbecued pork and caramelized pork belly, also accessorize steaming pho noodle bowls, tacos (served open-face on corn tortillas) and plump spring rolls. And the chicken-curry soup here is the best in town. This highly aromatic and succulent soup, delicately seasoned and generously loaded with chunks of chicken and creamy potato, carrots and onion, can be eaten with a hunk of baguette or the slightly sweet waffles (baked with either minty pandan or vibrantly purple taro root).
The storefront restaurant, squeezed between a dog “spa” and a nail salon, probably won’t stay at this address once enough patrons discover the place. It’s simply too good — its food richly fresh and superbly prepared — not to emerge from its hole and into the spotlight. •
Bun Mee Phan
4244 North Oak Trafficway