Tag Archives: Vietnamese

ShopHouse & BONMi: Southeast Asian Wave Hits DC

Photo credit: flickr user tedeytan 

I’m a total sucker for Southeast Asian cuisine, especially banh mi–Vietnam’s ingenious interpretation of a sub that combines its French colonial history with indigenous Vietnamese flavors and ingredients.  Encased in an unbelievably crispy, porous baguette made from rice flour, banh mi usually features various meats and offal (like pate and head cheese) as fillings, topped with slices of pickled carrots and cucumber for sweetness, and cilantro and jalepenos for heat.  The combination is beguiling, with each bite revealing different flavors and textures.  Best of all, banh mi definitely qualifies as a cheap eat; I’ve seen it as cheap at $2.50 in some places, but never more than $6.  In short, it may be the best sandwich ever invented.

So imagine my delight in finding out that two new restaurants, specializing in banh mi, recently opened in DC:  ShopHouse in Dupont Circle and BonMi in downtown.  Prior to these restaurants’ arrivals, banh mi fans like myself would have to travel all the way to the Eden Center to get a authentic version.  I set out to try both, in hopes that I would finally get a decent banh mi fix in the District and save myself the pain of 30+ minute WMATA ride to Virginia.

ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen

ShopHouse got a lot of buzz prior to opening, as the first new concept from Chipotle owner Steve Ells.  Media and bloggers descended on ShopHouse as soon as it opened, and greeted it with mixed reviews.  The set-up is very similar to Chipotle, with its signature quick assembly line filled with Southeast Asian ingredients such as long beans and eggplant with Thai basil, rather than guacamole and corn salsa.  Diners start by choosing a noodle bowl, rice bowl (brown or white available), or banh mi, and then continue down the line choosing their toppings and sauces.

My boyfriend and I shared a steak noodle bowl with spicy red curry sauce ($7.50) and a grilled chicken satay banh mi ($6.59).  First, I must say that I was particularly impressed with the quality of ingredients: everything looked very fresh, with toppings on the assembly line constantly being replaced with fresh-made batches.  The dishes themselves, however, disappointed a little.

The steak noodle bowl was intensely flavorful, in a not-so-pleasant way.  There was no balance to the dish; everything from the charred (albeit chewy) steak, to the pickled veggies, to the salted peanuts, to the fiery red curry sauce, seemed to compete with, rather than complement, each other.  My bowl was also doused in the red curry sauce, which even for a spice fiend like myself, was just too much–I ended up drinking about a quart of water throughout the rest of the day.

We liked the grilled chicken satay banh mi better than the steak bowl, but it still wasn’t great.  The chicken, pickled veggies, and herbs on top were all tasty, but the main problem was the bread–a limp and lifeless loaf of white monotony.  Fans of banh mi know that the baguette can make or break the dish; it needs to be crispy, airy, and golden.  ShopHouse’s version was none of these things and proved to be the downfall of an otherwise passable banh mi.

1516 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 232-4141
Open 11am-10pm
ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

BONMi

DC foodies, as well as office workers tired of the usual ho-hum delis in downtown, greeted BONMi with open arms when it arrived in Farragut Square.  Touted as a “Vietnamese inspired fast casual restaurant,” BONMi was started by the JBH Advisory Group, a restaurant consulting firm in NYC.  The restaurant definitely seems geared toward the global-minded downtown DC elite, as evidenced by its proximity to the World Bank, commitment to sustainability, and clean sleek interior.

In addition, BONMi’s appeal extends to foodies as well.  Traditional meat fillings are updated with interesting spices (think five spice chicken and garlic black pepper pork) and prepared sous vide–the Top Chef/Wiley Dufresne-approved cooking technique of the moment.  BONMi did not leave out vegetarians either, offering chile garlic tofu or butternut squash dipped in a coconut curry sauce as well.

On my visit, I ordered a lemongrass chicken banh mi and Vietnamese iced coffee ($8.75 total).  The Vietnamese iced coffee was bottled, which I have not seen before, and tasted more like milk than coffee.

Whereas I faulted ShopHouse for their bread, BONMi definitely hit the mark spot-on with its crackly, airy baguette.  Each bite left tons of crumbs all over the table–a mark of a good banh mi.  BONMi put a lot of effort into sourcing its bread, working directly with Lyon Bakery in Virginia to find the right batch.

The other ingredients, however, missed the mark for me.  Like ShopHouseBONMi also has an assembly line-style ordering system, but none of the meats looked very appealing or fresh.  I had my heart set on the five spice chicken, but the murky greasy-looking juices the chicken had been sitting in scared me a little, and I decided to go with the lemongrass chicken instead.  While the lemongrass chicken was tasty, it had a rubbery texture.  And whatever lemongrass flavor the chicken had was drowned out by the bright orange-spicy mayo slathered on top of it.  That said, I still enjoyed BONMi and judging from the sizeable crowd even at 1:30 in the afternoon, others feel the same way.

900 19th St. NW
Washington, DC 20006
Open Mon-Fri 11:00am-7:00pm
BONMi on Urbanspoon

The Verdict: Though not the best or most authentic (or cheapest) banh mi’s I’ve ever had, both ShopHouse and BONMi do the trick if you’re in serious need of a banh mi fix but don’t feel like metro-ing all the way out to NoVA.  However, if you’re looking for a traditional, top-notch version, you’ll probably still have to travel outside the District to find it, since both restaurants must adapt and appeal to more mainstream American palates and prices.

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Veritable Vietnamese at Minh’s

The Washingtonian’s Cheap Eats Guide might be eating away at my relationship. Since its arrival, I’ve annotated the entire thing, drawing big stars next to the restaurants I’m dying to try and ranking them in order of which ones I’ll go to first. And every weekend without fail, I drive my boyfriend crazy by agonizing over where we should eat. Are we in the mood for El Salvadorian pizza? Or what about Afghan kabobs? Or Tunisian brika? An hour of this usually goes by before we start arguing and he exclaims out of exasperation, “Just decide already!”

But last Saturday, after braving the heat during the Caribbean parade and wolfing down some of the spiciest jerk chicken around, a miracle happened. When dinnertime rolled around, I knew exactly what I wanted to eat–Vietnamese. And I knew just the place, which I had circled and starred in my sacred Cheap Eats guide: Minh’s, a Vietnamese restaurant near Court House which the Washingtonian described as “masterful with a fryer and deft with rice and noodles.”

Located on the bottom floor of an office building, Minh’s is pretty unassuming from the exterior. The interior reminded me of a 1980s Asian-style hotel ballroom, with floral silk covered chandeliers and white table cloths. The atmosphere was pleasant, with several table occupied by families and friends catching up on each other’s lives and sharing Minh’s excellent Vietnamese cuisine.

We started off with the shrimp cakes ($7.25), which contrary to my initial assumption, are not actually cakes at all. They’re fritters of whole shrimp interspersed with shredded yam and potato, deep fried to a golden crisp–miraculously without a trace of grease. The accompanying fish sauce and greens (lettuce, mint leaves, and cilantro)–a hallmark of Vietnamese cuisine–added sweetness and freshness to the dish. My recommendation is wrapping the fritters in the greens, like a burrito, and dipping it all in the fish sauce–absolutely delicious.

For our main courses, we ordered grilled shrimp and pork with thin noodles ($12.75) and lemongrass chicken ($11.50). The pork and shrimp absorbed the smoky, earthy flavor of the charcoal and was tempered, once again, by the accompanying greens and fish sauce. The noodles provided a nice chewiness and starch to the dish. Plus, it was certainly enough for 2 people to share, especially considering we still had another course to go!

The lemongrass chicken was, simply put, to die for. Cooked slowly in a clay pot, the chicken absorbed the complex, layered flavors of the marinade. Though the kitchen wouldn’t reveal the ingredients in their exquisite marinade, I detected soy sauce for saltiness, fish sauce for sweetness, lemongrass (obviously) for aroma, and red pepper flakes for heat (and there’s probably more ingredients that my inexperienced palate couldn’t discern).

My favorite part of the dish, however, had to be the onions. They soaked up the marinade even more so than the chicken, and tasted like they had been drowned in the most delectable nectar of the gods–I’m telling you, they were that good, especially over steamed white rice!

Since every course at dinner was fantastic, we decided to ignore our widening belt lines and order dessert. The kitchen ran out of our first choice–banana flambe over vanilla ice cream–so we opted for sweet mango sticky rice with coconut milk and mango ($5.00). Sadly, that was a mistake. The rice was more hard than sticky, and the coconut milk had no flavor. The fresh mango was the dish’s only saving grace.

Despite this disappointing end, the meal was on the whole superb. Minh’s affordable prices, vibrant Vietnamese cuisine, and vast menu (which includes over 100 items!) make it a destination that DC foodies won’t want to miss. And even though it’s crossed off my list, and there’s still more Washingtonian Cheap Eats restaurants left to check out, I won’t argue with going back for another meal at Minh’s.

Minh’s Restaurant

2500 Wilson Blvd.

Arlington, VA 22201

(703) 525-2828

Minh's on Urbanspoon

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Pho-get about the weather

View of the snow from inside Saigon Bistro

I woke up this morning to find a pleasant surprise outside my window: the first snow of the season! I was so excited to run outside and build a snowman, but then I realized it was only 8:30 in the morning (which, on a weekend, is early for me). So I crawled back into bed and decided to wait until the afternoon, dreaming of the winter wonderland that would be waiting for me.

Silly me. By the time I woke up again, it was 2:30p! I hurriedly put on my coat and dragged my boyfriend outside with me. But, alas, the beautiful white snowflakes that greeted me earlier this morning had turned into brown slush. It was cold, grey, rainy, and just plain dreary outside! And to add insult to injury, we were both FAMISHED. (Sorry for sounding like a negative Nancy, but I was really disappointed!)

Dining room at Saigon Bistro

Cold weather always makes me crave noodle soups (must be the Asian in me) and luckily, Saigon Bistro was there to save the day. This sleek Vietnamese eatery opened fairly recently and took over the space that used to house the Fractured Prune and Aioli. With the lack of decent pho restaurants in the District, I’m truly grateful for Saigon Bistro’s arrival.

My boyfriend and I both ordered small beef noodle soups, or pho. Our soups arrived fairly quickly and piping hot, along with the usual condiments of bean sprouts, basil, jalepenos, and lime wedges. The noodles were just the right amount of chewy and served with generous portions of well done brisket and rare beef. The broth tasted light and fresh, though lacking the strong anise flavor that I love in Pho 75‘s. Despite this, it was still a respectable bowl of pho and certainly satisfied my craving.

Small beef noodle soup #3

At $7.99 for a small pho, Saigon Bistro is a bit more expensive than Pho 75. But, hey, I think the extra $3 is worth it, especially for not having to trek all the way out to Rosslyn or Falls Church for decent pho on a cold winter day. Saigon Bistro’s menu offers more variety, too. I will definitely be back to try the rice dishes (which are skewers of chicken, shrimp, or beef served with rice, salad, and fish sauce) and clay pot dishes (if these are similar to Hong Kong style bao zai fan, I’ll be so happy). Nothing on the menu exceeds $15 and portions are generous.

After slurping down the last of my pho, I felt refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to head back out into the cold. I forgot all about my earlier grumpiness and left Saigon Bistro with a full belly and a smile on my face.

Saigon Bistro

2153 P St. NW (near the corner of P & 22nd St.)

Washington, DC 20036

202-558-6188

Saigon Bistro on Urbanspoon