My boss at Intel prides himself on consistently working “half days.” If you’re thinking you’d like a job where you work only four hours a day, you’ve misinterpreted his definition of “half days.” To him, half days is a literal term meaning twelve hours a day. When most of us are done for after only nine or ten hours, he’s starting what he calls his “second shift.” Very few of us have the stamina, initiative and especially the passion for what we do to work “half days.”
I know restaurateurs for whom half days (or longer) are standard six or seven days a week. Because they spend so much time in their restaurants tending to the care and feeding of others, they tend not to eat there–when they make time to eat. On their rare days off or when they’re able to make time for a quick escape, they like to visit their fellow restaurateurs, not necessarily to check up on the competition, but to be pampered and fed well.
Some restaurateurs would make great restaurant critics though they do tend to be overly “honest” when describing direct competitors, restaurants which serve the same type of cuisine they do. On the other hand, if you’d like to know where to find cuisine that meets exceedingly high standards, ask your favorite restaurateurs where they like to dine, particularly with family. If they’re effusive about a restaurant, you should make it a point to visit soon. It’s a good bet you’ll like it too.
Nicole Vallerio, the vivacious owner of Nicky V’s Neighborhood Pizzeria is a huge fan of the San Pedro Middle East Restaurant, quite possibly the very best purveyor of Middle Eastern delicacies in New Mexico. In another example of a restaurateur with a great restaurant unabashed with praise for another great restaurant, Torinos @ Home‘s dynamic Daniela Bouneau is positively agog over Budai Gourmet Chinese.
Though she’d probably prefer most of my restaurant meals and words of praise be reserved for Torinos @ Home, Daniela emailed me a few weeks ago with a rousing endorsement for a restaurant she and husband Maxime discovered during a foray to the International District. She admitted “Max and I were like kids last Saturday. Oh my, so fresh and so good and very affordable, too.” She then proceeded to recommend several dishes which struck her fancy. Daniela has never led me astray, either at her fabulous restaurant or at one she’s recommended to me.
The restaurant which excited her so much is Banh Mi Coda, a Vietnamese bakery which specializes in banh mi, the sandwich fusion which melds the freshness of Asian ingredients and the culinary ingenuity of the French. Banh Mi Coda is situated next door to Cafe Trang, separated only by a sprawling parking lot from Talin Market. In a previous instantiation, Banh Mi Coda was named Lee’s Bakery (not to be confused with the California-based Lee’s Sandwiches) and was located on the west side of the commodious Cafe Trang complex.
When you enter the Lilliputian digs, your olfactory senses will experience the sensual delight of fresh, warm oven-baked breads and pastries. As the intoxicating fragrances waft toward you, you’ll start to take in the visual aspects of your soon to be dining experience. Immediately to your right as you walk in are bold, color photographs of the eleven sandwich options, each foot-long banh mi seemingly not much smaller than the tiny eatery. Indicative perhaps of the volume of take-out orders, Banh Mi Coda has only a handful of tables, none of which appear large enough to accommodate a one-person order much less lunch for two. Culinary treasures are showcased under glass, the objects of much ogling and lust.
Your first visit should be reserved for the name on the marquee, a banh mi unlike any other in the Duke City, a sandwich Albuquerque The Magazine named one of the city’s 12 yummiest sandwiches in its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012. The basis for any great sandwich is the bread into which sundry ingredients are cradled. Fresh-baked, out of the oven into your waiting hands, twelve-inch French baguettes are the foundation of these banh mi. Each sandwich includes pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, cilantro, sliced jalapeño and Vietnamese mayo. Even the deli meats used on these sandwiches are made in-house and are available for purchase by the pound. The eleven sandwich options include two vegetarian choices: over-easy egg and tofu (also made on the premises).
The French baguettes may resemble sub sandwich bread, but the similarity stops there. Unlike the thick, doughy, pillowy bread proffered by the chains, these baguettes are crispy on the outside and have a soft interior. Characteristic of banh mi, these sandwiches will never be accused of being overstuffed. In fact, they look positively paltry compared to subs stuffed with lettuce. The difference is in the profusion of flavors you’ll experience with every bite. The ingredients are unfailingly fresh, crisp and moist. From grilled pork and chicken to shrimp sausage and cold cuts, the “innards” of each sandwich are as flavorful as can be imagined.
The Coda Combo (jambon, head ham, Vietnamese ham, BBQ pork and pate) is an excellent introduction to the delicious possibilities of a Vietnamese sandwich. If the aforementioned ingredients sound unfamiliar, if not daunting, fear not. Jambon is a wet-cured, boneless ham. Pate is a pork and liver spread. They–and the other ingredients in this combo–are absolutely delicious, and not just in an exotic, adventure-eating sort of way. The grilled pork banh mi, much like traditional Vietnamese grilled pork entrees, is redolent with the sweet spices of anise and cinnamon. Complemented with the sweet-savory-tangy pickled vegetables, it’s a wonderful sandwich. Even if you’re a bit pusillanimous around piquant peppers, make sure your sandwich includes at least a few jalapenos. They add more than piquancy.
For a surprising combination of Vietnamese and New Mexican ingredients, the green chili (sic) chicken pate chaud is a must-have. Under glass, it resembles apple strudel, but this is far from a dessert offering. As with banh mi, it’s a French influenced dish. A homemade puff pastry is engorged with shredded chicken and green chili in a cream sauce. The golden crust is light and flaky, the shredded chicken and cream sauce a delight and the green chili actually has bite. Call this one a Vietnamese empanada and you wouldn’t get much argument from any New Mexican who tries it.
One of the items Daniela recommended most highly was the pandan waffle, wholly unlike any conception of a waffle you might have. Pandan is an herb with long green leaves. It not only imbues the waffles with a bright green coloring, but with a discernible flavor and aroma. Also prominent on the flavor profile is coconut milk. Pandan waffles are moist and don’t require syrup. They’re also surprisingly good.
The premise that restaurateurs and chefs know where to eat wasn’t lost on the Food Network whose program “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” answers the question “where do food stars and chefs eat in their free time–when they’re paying.” It make sense that people who spend their lives obsessing about food during their half days or longer at the kitchen would know where it’s served best. Banh Mi Coda is one such restaurant.
Banh Mi Coda
230-C Louisiana Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 21 July 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Pandan Waffles, Green Chili Chicken Pate Chaud, Coda Combo Banh Mi, Grilled Pork Banh Mi, Vietnamese Pork Meatball Banh Mi