JP, my former boss at Intel used to pride 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 was just starting what he called 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.
Daniela Bouneau, the vivacious dynamo who partnered with her husband Maxime to launch Torinos @ Home and Eclectic Urban Pizzeria would probably have preferred most of my restaurant meals and words of praise be reserved for her restaurants. Still, when she emailed me a few years ago with a rousing endorsement for a restaurant she and husband Maxime discovered during a foray to the International District, my attention was piqued. 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 restaurants or at one she’s recommended to me.
The restaurant which excited her so much is Coda Bakery (formerly 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 a space which has served as several restaurants over the years. Coda Bakery is separated only by a sprawling parking lot from Talin Market.
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 eatery. Until 2017, Coda Bakery had only a handful of tables, all in personal space proximity. An expansion more than doubled seating capacity. Culinary treasures are showcased under glass, the objects of much ogling and lust.
7 November 2022: It’s a good thing the olfactory senses that will delight you don’t pick up on the unique aromas of the durian smoothie, one of nine exotic smoothie flavors on the menu (the others are avocado, jackfruit, soursop, lychee, strawberry, banana, coconut, coffee). All are available with boba for a pittance more. The odor of durian, the world’s smelliest fruit, has been compared to rotting onions, smelly arm pits, stinky feet and other malodorous items. Many people–including Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern–can’t stand the thought of eating durian, a fruit so smelly it’s been banned in many public spaces in Asia.
My first experience with durian came as a dare. Never one to back away from a food challenge (not so much in terms of quantity, but in terms of foods with an “exotic” nature) my preliminary assessment was “I probably won’t like it, but it wouldn’t be manly to show if it gags me.” Instead of gagging me, I found the flavor of this highly misunderstood fruit enticing and delicious. Only at Vietnamese restaurants have I been able to enjoy durian and only in the form of a shake or smoothie. Sadly, even Vietnamese restaurants have stopped serving even durian smoothies, largely because of its odoriferous qualities. Thank goodness for Coda Bakery for one of the few remaining durian smoothies in town–and one of the very best.
In addition to a durian shake, 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 sub sandwich chains, these baguettes are crispy on the outside and have a soft interior without being doughy. 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. By the way, if you still prefer your sandwich “extra meaty” just order it with “double meat.”
3 April 2018: The Coda Combo (jambon, head ham, Vietnamese ham, BBQ pork and housemade 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. This is my very favorite banh mi on the menu–perhaps because Oscar Meyer was an early precursor of cold cuts.
By the way, Southeast Asian fermented, cured meats aren’t entirely dissimilar from Italian or French meats you’d find on a charcuterie board. Vietnam lies firmly in the tropics and is therefore traditionally and geographically precluded from the slow salt-cured meats of more northerly regions. Instead, Vietnamese cold cuts need freshly ground lean meats and a specific combination of spices and processing steps to cure meats rapidly in the tropical heat. The resultant meats are both snappy and yielding, sweet, savory and tangy, garlicky, peppery, and can be garnished with chilli and fresh herbs.
7The 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. If you’re a bit pusillanimous around piquant peppers, make sure your sandwich includes at least a few jalapeños. They add more than piquancy. The So Much Food blog has the perfect description for this banh mi: “They check all the boxes of what makes a perfect sandwich: grilled, slightly fatty meat, a spicy element, a cool crunchy element, and a creamy element. They’re also perfect for serving a crowd!”
10 February 2015: There’s a Lemony Snicket quote which might just be appropriate for Banh Mi Coda’s Vietnamese Meatball Banh Mi: “Miracles are like meatballs, because nobody can exactly agree on what they are made of, where they come from, or how often they should appear.” The photo on the wall depicts a baguette brimming with meatballs. There aren’t nearly quite that many meatballs on the banh mi. In fact, meatballs are rather sparse. Perhaps that’s because a few meatballs go a long way. Texturally the meatballs are akin to meatloaf, the soft, squishy inside, not the crusty exterior. In terms of flavor, they’re a perfect foil for the other ingredients. More savory than sweet, the meatballs are a wonderful filler for any sandwich.
13 March 2015: It took the Lenten season for me to notice that one of the banh mi options on the daily menu is a shrimp sausage banh mi with spicy mayo. Consider my oversight a lost opportunity to enjoy a rather unique sandwich. Unless you’ve previously had shrimp sausage, it’s wholly unlike what you might picture shrimp sausage to be. Picture a soft, moist patty of finely minced shrimp with a binding agent of some sorts. It’s seasoned very well, particularly when the spicy mayo (which you’ve probably had with sushi) is part of the picture. Spicy is a bit of a misnomer unless you also bite into a jalapeño concurrently. This is one of those non-meat items that as a Catholic, doesn’t taste at all like a penance.
In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2017, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Ban Mi Coda a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its Beef Lemongrass Banh Mi as one of the “dishes…that’s lighting a fire under the city’s culinary scene.” Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor. If you’ve frequented Vietnamese restaurants, it’s very likely you’ve experienced lemongrass which imparts a slightly sweet, pungent and lemony taste to items in which it’s used. In the Western world, lemongrass is still pretty much a mysterious ingredient, but the Coda Bakery has mastered the complex notes of lemongrass to craft some of the most delicious sandwiches you’ll ever have. If your usual sandwich favorite has you bored, this one will cure what ails you.
7 December 2022: Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who was considered the spiritual father of the Jewish Renewal movement analogized tofu to the mind: “The mind is like tofu. By itself, it has no taste. Everything depends on the flavor of the marinade it steeps in.” One of the most flavorful tofu dishes I’ve ever had is the tofu noodle bowl at Coda Bakery. That’s not solely my experience. Food Network superstar Guy Fieri called this dish one of the top three tofu dishes he’s ever had (much more below, including a photo that will make your mouth water). Inside the tofu has the consistency of a velvety custard. Its exterior is tenderly crispy. The sauce is the perfect blend of savory and sweet with subtle notes of heat. Ingredients–pickled carrots, daikon, cucumber–usually found on banh mi are crispy and oh so wonderfully contrasting with the slippery, sumptuous noodles. Coda Bakery also offers noodle bowls with grilled pork, grilled chicken, grilled pork sausage, shrimp sausage, beef lemongrass and even tuna. Every one of them is bound to become a favorite.
21 July 2011: 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 a German 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.
21 July 2011: 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.
7 December 2022: With all due apologies to the famous Frontier Roll, the Duke City’s very best anytime pastry may well be Banh Mi Coda’s fabulous Cinnamon Raisin Croissant. While not crescent-shaped or as flaky as most, if not all, of the croissants you’ve ever had, it has the delicious properties of croissants at their best. Tear into the spiral-shaped, sugar encrusted beauty and wisps of steam will waft upward toward your eagerly anticipating nostrils. The insides are pillowy soft with melt-in-your mouth qualities and the sweetness born of raisins a plenty as well as sugar and cinnamon, but not too much of either. If you’re tired of pastries so sweet that looking at them rots your teeth, you’ll love this one.
Guy Fieri Visits Coda Bakery
Because Food Network star Guy Fieri has traveled the length and breadth of the fruited plain in search of the country’s best diners, drive-ins and dives, you might think he’s tried everything. In fact, that’s pretty much how he introduced his visit to Albuquerque’s Coda Bakery during an episode entitled “From Italian to Asian” which aired in April 2022: “In Triple D, I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I’ve met them, I’ve heard their story and I’ve tasted just about every type of menu that there is. I’m here in Albuquerque, New Mexico and that might get broken today. This is a story about an immigrant family like I’ve never heard before. They’re doing a menu that I don’t think I’ve quite seen before. This one’s unique. This is Coda Bakery Vietnamese Deli and Tofu House.”
Fieri noted that Coda Bakery serves Vietnamese home cooking, the type of which owner Linh Nguyen inherited from her Vietnamese born parents. Linh was born on the boat that ferried her family away from war-torn Vietnam. Her birth certificate and citizenship paperwork both list her country of birth as “International Waters.” When Fieri asked, “would you call this a Vietnamese restaurant,” Linh responded “Absolutely! This is a Vietnamese casual fast-food restaurant, but the flavor is authentic.” With that, she proceeded to blow Fieri away with the family’s rendition of housemade tofu which started with soybeans which Linh ground on a grinder Fieri described as looking like “a water fountain in elementary school.” The resultant mixture is cooked in her dad’s “amazing steamer” which he converted from a water boiler to a steam generator”
Linh prepared a beautifully plated tofu noodle bowl (tofu, white onion, housemade Korean barbecue sauce, rice noodles, lettuce, cucumbers, pickled carrots, daikon, bean sprouts, cilantro, mint (from her mom’s garden), scallion oil, roasted peanuts and soy vinegar oil) which she served to the amazed host. Reminiscent of Bruce, the wide-mouthed killer shark from the movie Jaws, Fieri proceeded to shove the tofu noodle bowl with alacrity. He admitted “I’ve been eating tofu since I was a kid, but this is tender, creamy, sweet, but light. That’s the top best three tofus I’ve ever had in my life. And, this dish is perfectly made, perfectly balanced, gorgeous. I would come back minimum once a week if not twice a week just to get that dish.”
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 makes 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.
230-C Louisiana Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 December 2022
1st VISIT: 21 July 2011
# OF VISITS: 12
BEST BET: Pandan Waffles, Green Chili Chicken Pate Chaud, Coda Combo Banh Mi, Grilled Pork Banh Mi, Vietnamese Pork Meatball Banh Mi, Tofu Noodle Bowl, Durian Smoothie, Jackfruit Smoothie