Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
Well, I guess one of the Lunch in the Loop gods heard my plea for more bánh mì sandwiches down in workville, because they delivered us a new Vietnamese sandwich joint: Bánh Mì & Co.. The Loop location is decorated like an amped up version of a Hollister store, with a kitschy beach shack feel to it. You have to see it to believe it—no, seriously, step in. It's kind of awesome.
If the name Bánh Mì & Co. sounds familiar, that's because it's a small chain here in Chicago, with three other outposts on the North Side of the city. And if you couldn't guess that they sold bánh mì, based off its name, then you may want to consider going back to school for reading comprehension. Don't worry, I'll be sitting right next to you, because mentally, I haven't really passed the third grade. It's a well known fact.
If you're up for vegetarian food, the papaya salad with lemongrass tofu ($7.85) is a good place to start. The shredded green papaya and carrot salad is crisp, light, and vinegary, while the tofu is almost meaty in texture and heft. It's strongly seasoned with the sharp flavor of lemongrass, which makes a potentially boring ingredient something much more lively. The dressing, which might look like a sweet chili dipping sauce, is actually a very pungent fish sauce dressing, so vegans, just take note. I don't want you to get secret-meated. I think the salad is much better suited for a summer day, so later, when this damn winter passes and you've begun to complain about the heat instead, go have a papaya salad. Or hell, have one and just fantasize about summer.
You can't go to a bánh mì shop and not at least try the classic version. Bánh Mì & Co. calls theirs the Saigon Classic ($6.55), and it is decked with ham, spiced pork roll, and pate, and then packed with pickled daikon radish, cucumber, carrots, cilantro, and jalapeño slices. And of course, you've got to have the Japanese-style mayo, which is sweet and thick.
The Saigon Classic isn't my favorite out of the three I tried, surprisingly. I almost always opt for this version of any bánh mì, but the ratios are off. There's actually too much meat in the filling, which would could potentially be a good thing. But classic bánh mì really benefit from a balance between crackly bread and meat, with that interplay of pickled vegetables, herbaceous cilantro, and spice. The quantity of meat tips the scales a little too far into heavy territory. The pate, however, is really good; it's strongly flavored, livery, and almost metallic in a great way. And I'm surprised I'm complaining about too much meat for once.
My favorite is the barbecue pork bánh mì ($6.55). Despite its bright red color, the pork isn't seasoned particularly strongly, but that's not bad—the meat is intensely piggy and delicious just on its own. A good bite with every ingredient in it is a satisfying combination of meaty, crispy, rich, and fresh.
The Vietnamese meatball bánh mì($6.55) is very hearty and has a ton of protein in it. The pork meatballs are formed with coarsely ground meat which gives them a lot of texture, and they have a slightly smoky flavor to them. They are a bit dry, however, and underseasoned. If you're a quantity person, this might be more up your alley.
For you noodle fanatics, I'm happy to report that Bánh Mì & Co. does sell a hot bowl of phở ($8.95). The chicken and beef based broth is very savory, and is accented heavily with star anise and a touch of clove and cinnamon. It is missing a certain depth of flavor that I've had with more satisfying bowls, but it's definitely way better than a boring cup of chicken noodle soup. You do have a choice of beef brisket or chicken, and brisket is definitely the way to go. It's tender and fits well with the broth.
I think at this point, we could all use a winter escape, and aside from selling all our things and moving to Vietnam, Bánh Mì & Co. is a fun little distraction from a dreary cold day at the office. But until then, we can all commiserate with each other over some warm weather food. Also, let's have a rap battle.
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.