Sitting at Whet Cafe, chatting about meals we'd recently eaten, recipes we'd tried and our latest market excursions, my friend Simon stopped mid-sentence and mid-cupcake and dropped a delicious bomb. Suddenly, breathlessly, he said, "Youarenotgonnabelievethis!" Barely missing a beat, he finished, "There is banh mi at the Dartmouth flea market."
This was in April, when Indochine Banh Mi was still a "coming soon" poster. The city's lack of Vietnamese subs---much like the elusive pork bun---had long been one of those topics that my friends and I would have chest-beating, hair-tearing conversations about after rapturous retellings of our visits to places like Momofuku, Ippudo or Baogette.
I soon snagged a foot-long sandwich from the Harbourview Weekend Market. For five bucks I got a baguette full of questionable meat, fresh cilantro, crunchy carrot and a tasty smear of pate. That sub was the first step in filling a sandwich-sized hole in my heart.
Back on the Halifax side, Indochine Banh Mi finally opened. A small storefront tucked into the row of shops along South Park, Indochine is more of a takeout counter than a restaurant. A row of tall barstools runs along the wall of windows and a handful of tables sit outside in the alleyway between shops.
The sweaty afternoon that Simon and I decide to head there for lunch, we arrive to a half-full restaurant with two servers milling about. We order the lemongrass chicken sandwich ($6.95)---the server says it's their most popular---and the pork satay ($5.95). We also each order a bubble tea ($4.50)--- pineapple coconut and mango peach.
We sit outside, enjoying the breeze that builds up in the shady alleyway and cuts through the day's heat. We start to unwrap our sandwiches, but Simon stops quickly. He pushes his chair back with a gentle screech and runs into the restaurant where he asks for a dish of sliced Thai chili to add. The sandwiches are delicious, especially with the vicious, tear-jerking heat of the additional chili slices. A few bites in and I breathe fire.
We cool off with the bubble tea. Theirs is the blended ice version of the drink, made with real fruit. While refreshing, both are watery and bland and, beyond the tapioca pearls, don't impress since both of us prefer the milk tea variety.
The play of the heat against the cool tartness of the pickled daikon and carrot in the sandwich does impress and is made only better by refreshing bites of cucumber and zippy cilantro. The vegetables easily dominate the meat; the pork stands up a little better than the subtle flavour of the lemongrass chicken, which is overwhelmed by the tang of the rice vinegar.
Overall they are great sandwiches, but run shy of being great banh mi. With a banh mi, I expect a toothsome Vietnamese baguette: an airy bread made with a mix of rice and wheat flour and which has a sticky crispiness and characteristic chew---and Indochine offers a run-of-the-mill baguette that even lacks the crust development of a great French baguette. And to not even have the option of a silky spread of pate is a true disappointment to anybody who has ever had a great Saigon sub.
The Indochine menu states that they try to use as many locally sourced ingredients as possible; it would be great to see a local bakery get on board and perfect a Vietnamese baguette. It would also be nice to see pate on the sandwich menu. Basically---even though Indochine Banh Mi is a great sub shop---and continues to fill that hole in my heart---it would be great to see authentic banh mi in Halifax.