Many a paean has been sung to Nhu' Lan Bakery's bánh mì. And those Vietnamese sandwiches deserve it. The warm smell of baking French bread wafting from this unassuming storefront each morning is as essential to Lincoln Square's atmosphere as Blommer's chocolate is to River North's.
But this isn't the only fare on offer at Nhu' Lan. The bakery recently revamped its interior, expanding a formerly lonely refrigerated case stuck in the back into a long, chilled row of interesting fare and sweets you have to pass before you order your bánh mì. Some of the options are familiar—dumplings, anyone?—while others are a bit more enigmatic, like the rice crepes and rather McSandwich-looking fried pork patties between rice cake buns. The menu also advertises an exotic variety of fresh smoothies (lychee, durian, and red bean among them), with or without the tapioca pearls.
These, along with the contents of the hot case next to the register, have always been available, but suddenly seemed more tempting. I decided it was time to throw some light on Nhu' Lan's less explored offerings.
First to catch my eye were four varieties of spring rolls, displayed upright in artful trios. I went for a classic—the gỏi cuốn tôm, or shrimp spring rolls ($5.75). The rolls were expertly wrapped and stuffed with a few honest ingredients: shrimp, lettuce, rice vermicelli, bean sprout threads, and a bit of mint. When I make them at home, I have a tendency to cram my spring rolls with three different kinds of herbs, mangos, avocados, carrots, sweet corn, quinoa, and all other sorts of nontraditional things. So if I say I found them perhaps a bit too straightforward, you know why. But the thinned, perfectly nutty-sweet-spicy peanut dipping sauce would put mine to shame, and with the simple spring rolls as a vehicle for that, it's a worthy light lunch.
Next, I ventured into the unknown. The "quail eggs..." mentioned in the description of my "mushrooms pork cake," or bánh giò, is the whimsical detail that sold me. The banana leaf-wrapped packet was just $2.50 and basically contained a glutinous rice version of the Cornish pasty.
Unlike a pasty, however, the rice cake exterior is thick, gummy, and moist. If you have a texture aversion you'll just want to heat and scrape out the steaming filling, which was delicious. The tiny quail's eggs were whole, tucked into sweet, peppery ground pork laced with sautéed mushroom bits.
After debating between the coconut and avocado smoothie, I went with the latter ($3.95). I never looked back. A heaping green blend of fresh avocado, sugar and milk, with those wonderfully chewy tapioca pearls layering the bottom, it would have been a meal in its own right. It's ultra rich—I swear I could feel the avocado coating my teeth, in a good way—but with a sweetness mellow enough that I'd be as apt to call it a healthy dessert as I would breakfast on the El (despite its legendary lunch rush, Nhu' Lan opens early enough for commuters, at 7:30 a.m).
I walked away with my curiosity piqued, rather than satisfied: I am still wondering about a heavy banana leaf-wrapped log tied up with string, which was described to me by the cashier as, simply, "pork." Next time I'll sample the savory sugarcane and pork pastries or variety of egg rolls in the hot case. Or the "soursop" smoothie, which I had to look up—it's a spiky-looking fruit that somehow boasts the tartness of a pineapple along with the creaminess of a banana. I'll also have to return soon to find out if the takeout phở is up to par—there are nine varieties, all under $8. Looks like it'll be a long time before I get another bánh mì.