Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Banh-Mi Boys

My experience at Banh Mi Boys plays a bit like a Goldilocks story, so bear with me.

And hello again! I've missed you guys! I've missed using you all as a reason to eat amazing food, all the time. Or most of the time. At least once a week anyhow, but in this case, it was several times in one week and WOW am I still not tired of Banh-Mi.

My day sees me winding down with a walk from Richmond to Queen and Spadina to catch a streetcar to bring me home. I don't usually want to cook for myself at this time of night, especially since cooking for one is pretty boring (I will spoil my roommate with a dinner extravaganza as regularly as possible, but it is never enough). Yes, my nights tend to end in the horror of canned lentil soup. It's been on sale after all, and I'd rather pinch those pennies to splurge on a better meal at a nice restaurant...Banh Mi Boys is almost on the corner, at 392 Queen!

I will start with the bad news, which is that Banh Mi Boys is not that nice restaurant. While I know that they are first-time restaurateurs, that's no excuse for the divey feel of the place. It's painfully fluorescent and blue, the walls bare and painted a glaring and unfriendly white. The layout leaves a lot to be desired, the gauntlet between wall and prep counter squeezing any customer who wants to sit at the few cheap tables in the back. Because they've got some nice graphics, and the buzz has been good, I had expected something that felt less like a Chinatown dive. In that sense, Banh Mi Boys struck out.

We're not here for ambiance, though. We are here to eat.
Day one saw me trying the traditional banh mi sub. I really wanted the five spice pork, but it was sold out. My next choice was the regular pork, but I was told it wasn't the best cut. That is a kinda strange thing to tell a customer, I think, but I appreciated the tip. This one guy was there every day I went, and he was always the most energetic, helpful, and enthusiastic. I gather that it's a partnership, but I deeply suspect he's the motor of the boys. Pork was thus removed from my sub options for the night, and I went for the next thing, the Spicy Beef Banh Mi (5.95). My spice tolerance is above average, but not by so much. For a few minutes I felt like a hotshot as I asked for kimchi and hot sauce on the sandwich, and was given stares of appreciation and fear. Was I mad? Actually I found it very mild. If you like things spicy, ask for extra hot sauce, or jalapenos, they overstate the heat.

The bun is home made by the owner, who moonlights at his fathers bakery to make the perfect bread he pictured for Banh Mi Boys eponymous food, and it is airy as spun clouds with a light and crackling crust. Perfect, not too filling. It's long, so that airiness is an advantage, and it suits banh mi much better than a baguette. The pickled carrots are wobbly and tangy, sweet but natural. Though I don't think the beef was very spicy, it was tender, succulent and fall apart in texture like ragu. It was chopped up in a way that reminded me of a shawarma. After finishing I was surprised that something so visually large could feel so insubstantial after eating.

Day two brought me around again, with a considerable appetite. These steamed buns were a big draw for me, seeming like the most inventive and fun thing on the menu. I was excited to order them and got two, knowing they would be smaller. I am not that familiar with steamed buns, you may guess. They're heavy, doughy and fat to the point that very little can fit in them as far as toppings go. I had a Pork Belly and a Tofu Bao (3.49$ ea). The only way I knew that tofu could be had was because the family ordering ahead of me asked about it. For all appearances, the menu is totally carnivorous. Maybe they should stick to meat, given that the tofu had a very careless treatment. A brick of it was panko-crusted and fried. Panko will always taste good, so that was nice. But the soggy tofu hadn't had the love of a marinade, or any spice treatment. It was sadly bland. It may have been better if instead of one large piece, a few smaller pieces were fried and piled on the bao- more chance for flavor, and easier to handle. The salt in the fried crust was good, but there wasn't any action happening. It was the same vegetables, mild sauce (mayo and bbq), and the kimchi was salty but flavourless.
The pork bao was an improvement. The bbq sauce was tangy and sensitively applied. The meat was honest and robust. I just don't think I like the bao in the end, because their bland and doughy taste envelops any filling that's put inside, no matter how gleaming the flavor.
Whereas the banh mi had left me not feeling full enough, eating these left me feeling loaded and heavy.

Here is where my Goldilocks story comes into play. Day three. Previously the banh mi was too light, the bao too heavy, but these Tacos (3.99$) were totally amazing, and just the right weight. I hadn't known what to expect, but pictured a hard shell. The 'taco' is actually a roti of some kind. Light, buttery, elastic, flaky. They are steamed and then sink into little containers before being heaped with our now familiar vegetable trio of cucumber, cilantro and carrot. It gave me a kick that this Vietnamese inspired place is serving a Mexican named dish with an Indian style bread. Oh Toronto I love you so. I had a kalbi (Korean!) beef taco and though I'm no poultry lover, had the grilled chicken as well. The chicken had shawarma taste again (Vietnam meets Mexico meets India meets Turkey?), but with a potent dash of paprika. The cutlets were quite tangy with celery salt.

My absolute favourite thing was the kalbi taco, which was juicy and knockout flavourful. The meat was rife with onion and the taste of flat top grilling. The tacos are fun to eat, the taco/roti absorbent and malleable, perfect for sopping up juice or ferrying a load of veggies and beef to ones mouth. I had extra kimchi and sriracha on, and that makes these things.

The easy comparison to make here is to the Chinatown vietnamese subs found a five minute walk North on Spadina. They're different beasts, to be sure. Banh Mi Boys are dealing with a higher price point, because they clearly use fresher produce, bread, and higher quality meats.  Every sandwich is made to order. In Chinatown you can get a sub the same size for 2$, and that can be a big draw by itself. They are packaged and ready to go, the bread is not as fresh, and the meat is dubious (but delicious) cold cuts. It's good in a different way. So if you're thinking of arguing about the price difference, think about the difference between the 1.69$ hamburger at Burger King, and the 10$ plate you'll get at any decent pub first. Same deal. Banh Mi Boys is going to be a draw because of their fresh take on a beloved takout food, and I hope a few more weeks will give them time to make the location more welcoming, to kick up the flavour, and hopefully work on their vegetarian option.

Given the proximity to my work, I know I'll be eating more of those tacos.
Email Katherine

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  1. Bahn Mi at first sounded like bahmi, which is the Indonesian noodle dish. I was pleasantly surprised that this blog was not about noodles...

  2. @morgan I know! I hope to swing by again and see if they've gotten a bit better

  3. I was expecting to see pics of the food, but your illustrations are way cooler!