The Vegetarian Option: The Vegetarian Bánh Mi at Whole Foods Gold Coast
Like most of their locations across the country, the Whole Foods Market on Huron Street in River North does a brisk lunch business thanks to a big soup and salad bar, a station serving pizza by the slice, and made-to-order sandwiches. But it was also at the sandwich station that I encountered the delicious vegetarian bánh mi ($5.99).
Now, touting a chain grocery store's bánh mi might seem a bit like praising the barbecue rib sandwich of a fast-food giant. Rare as it may be, they're still corporate approximations of something wholesome and authentic, and would undoubtedly be better obtained from a purveyor with some appreciable connection to the cuisine. But Whole Foods—or at least the cooks at this particular branch—seems to be on to something with this sandwich. And unless, say, Nhu Lan Bakery opens an output nearby, this might be your best veggie bánh mi bet in the vicinity.
Its goodness hinges on the tofu. The abundant, oversized cubes are flavored with lemomgrass, well-marinated, and fried to a nice crisp. Mysterious little bits of non-meat cracklings add a smoky crunch. The bread isn't as special as the tofu—its density throws off the sandwich's balance—but the veggies help to offset that somewhat. Sliced cucumber and pickled daikon lend a vegetal crunch, and thick-sliced jalapeño adds some welcome heat. (That said, I'd prefer that chile to be sliced thinner and better distributed through the sandwich.) Luckily, the additional touches of bean thread noodles, mayo, and cilantro are all in balance, making for a surprisingly flavorful sandwich.