French finesse and Asian flavors. Those are the elements that define Vietnamese food. And banh mi sandwiches — built on the baguettes the French brought with them when they exerted colonial control over what they called Cochin-China — are a pretty handy example of the good things culinary fusion brings to the table.
It’s long been possible to find banh mi on menus at Vietnamese restaurants in Louisville’s culturally rich South End (notably, the commendable Pho Binh Minh, 6709 Strawberry Lane). And NamNam Cafe in St. Matthews (318 Wallace Ave.) has a good one on the menu.
But Banh Mi Hero, which opened last December on Bardstown Road, does for banh mi what Lil Cheezers (938 Baxter Ave.) and Tom+Chee (1704 Bardstown Road) have done for the grilled cheese — given it an artisanal twist, and made it a high-profile focus of the menu.
It’s a little place, with just a couple of dozen seats, a counter (an artifact of the sushi bar that formerly occupied the space) and modest decor. Table service is efficient (and there’s a bustling carryout operation).
The menu is small as well — and though on my visits I found myself wishing for, say, a bowl of soup, a spring roll or some sort of dessert, everything on the menu is extremely well executed — and offers great value and quality.
There are eight sandwiches, a few rice cups (topped with meat, poultry or veggies) and a handful of tacos topped with the same grilled, marinated and curried meats and vegetables you’ll find in the rice cups.
And if everything else about Banh Mi Hero is diminutive, those sandwiches are anything but. And in a world overflowing with soft, spongy, boring submarine sandwiches, Banh Mi Hero is aptly named — these sandwiches offer a heroic alternative.
The rolls — big, sturdy loaves from The Bakery at Sullivan University — are big enough to use as clubs. And big enough to perplex the first-time diner — as in, “How am I gonna eat that thing?” But pick one up, and you’ll be amazed at how securely it holds layer upon layer of stuffing. Crush it down a bit, and you’ll even be able to get at least a corner into your mouth.
Once you take a bite, the flavors and smells will overcome any lingering sandwich anxiety, and you’ll find a way.
Owner Lee Tran (who just turned 21 but has years of experience working with his mother at Annie Cafe, one of the city’s most admired Vietnamese restaurants, 308 W. Woodlawn Ave.) dresses most of his sandwiches with a cheery drizzle of spicy, house-made aioli; others are treated with a house-made blend of molasses and soy sauce, brick-red chili sauce or fish sauce.
Regardless, Tran’s approach to flavor emphasizes balance over heat, and unless you doctor your sandwich up with, say, sriracha sauce, none of these sandwiches will sear your palate. Rather, they’ll intrigue you with interplay of fresh herbs and vegetables and appetizing meats.
In the Saigon Hero ($8), the meats are steamed pork sausage and braised pork belly, with plenty of fresh cilantro, crunchy cucumbers and a refreshing garnish of onions, carrots and daikon radish — and lurking under everything is a smear of Tran’s house-made pate — a rich, creamy chicken liver spread that adds an earthy background note to all the sandwiches.
You won’t find a bad sandwich on the list. Lee’s Sandwich (nicknamed “The Big Boy Banh Mi,” $8) is stuffed with grilled pork, pate, a couple of scrambled eggs, plenty of vegetables and a dash of Thai chili sauce.
If eggs are on your mind, the “Good Morning, Vietnam” ($7) offers three fried eggs and veggies along with the molasses-soy sauce. And the “CLC” — curried lemongrass chicken — delivers a classic dose of Vietnamese flavors: rich, sharp and punchy.
For vegetarians, there is the Banh Mi Chay ($7), dressed with grilled onions, mushrooms and firm chunks of curry-glazed tofu.
A single sandwich on its own might not be enough for two, but couple it with a rice bowl ($4) — steamed jasmine rice topped with that lemongrass chicken, marinated steak or the curried chili tofu —and splitting the sandwich is an option. And the tacos ($6) — available on soft (or gluten-free) tortillas — are just about as big, though perhaps not quite so sturdy.
Alas, there’s no alcohol available (now, anyway), but Vietnamese iced coffee is good for an after-dinner buzz, and the cold case is stocked with an assortment of soft drinks.