THE BITE: It’s been a while since we’ve written about Pho Hoai Restaurant at 1906 Avenue U. We last explored the grilled beef and crispy fried spring rolls. I’ve probably put more than 100 visits under my (growing) belt since then, and today we return once more for a look at lighter fare: the Banh Mi (a.k.a. Vietnamese sandwich) and the restaurant’s new addition: the grilled beef summer roll.
Banh Mi sandwich ($5.00)
Vietnamese cooking is notable for its playful use of texture. While other cultures may settle for a soggy stew here and some crunchy fried bits there – separate, but equal – it seems almost every dish on the menu at Vietnamese restaurants prefers to let them dance with each other, a true “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” philosophy. And both of the dishes I look at today embody that philosophy.
Like many Vietnamese dishes, the Banh Mi, or Vietnamese sandwich, blends traditional Vietnamese flavors with French elements left over from colonial days.
The innards are wholly Vietnamese – roast pork, a thin layer of cha lua (pork roll), pickled carrots and daikon (a radish), and fresh cucumber and cilantro. The outside, all French: a flaky, lightly toasted baguette, smeared with mayonaisse and liver pate.
When you bite into a banh mi, the crusty bread flakes away to its chewy, moistened inside, made chewier by lumps of fatty, savory meat lining it. Sink your teeth deeper, and you hit the crunch of the cucumber, daikon, carrots and cilantro (stem included).
A sandwich I’ve eaten since junior high school, a bite into Pho Hoai’s banh mi remains one of the most satisfying of my life. Full stop.
There are other places to get a banh mi, some as good as Pho Hoai’s (It’s been a while since I’ve been to Pho Vietnam, also on Avenue U, and I recall theirs being quite good, too). But Vietnamese sandwiches have picked up in popularity in recent years, and while some places offer several more options of filling – including chicken and other meats – they all botch one of the most important elements: the bread. Few places use a properly crusty French baguette, catering more to the American palate of gloppy, flavorless carb pillows. Pity, because texture is key.
Grilled Beef Summer Rolls ($5.95, two rolls)
This is actually a brand new addition to Pho Hoai’s recently updated menu. The restaurant long served traditional summer rolls, which wrapped a layer of sliced, chilled shrimp, shredded lettuce, cold vermicelli, and scallions inside a soft, sticky rice paper. But now you can replace the shrimp with grilled beef or chicken.
The shrimp version is a delicate tasting thing, with only the scallion really standing out as a flavor. Once again, it’s all about the texture… and I’ve long ordered it as a vessel to carry gobs of the delightful peanut sauce to my mouth, and convince myself it’s healthy because of all that crunchy lettuce.
But the versions with grilled beef and chicken are something else. I got the beef version and, surprise, this appetizer now has a flavor all to itself. Smoky, salty beef juices leak out of the lightly charred meat and into the remaining elements. It’s light, yet immensely satisfying.
Flavor also means you can eat the entire thing without the peanut sauce – and then throw the shotglass-sized cup of sauce to the back of your throat like a champ. Because why not?
Just don’t choke on the lumps of crushed peanuts. Texture has its price.
Pho Hoai Restaurant, 1906 Avenue U, (718) 616-1233.
The Bite is Sheepshead Bites’ column exploring the foodstuffs of the Sheepshead Bay area. Each week we check out a different offering from one of the many restaurants, delis, food carts, bakeries, butchers, fish mongers, or grocers in our neighborhood. If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite.