Stepping off the train at Belmont Avenue, the atmosphere almost feels like an urbanized Evanston; there’s the original Cheesie’s and Clarke’s, both classic go-to’s for Northwestern students. However, the perception of the Northwestern bubble quickly fades as trendy yet hipster stores begin to crop up. Conveniently located just a block and a half from the Red Line’s Belmont stop, Nhu Lan Saigon Subs is the place to go in Chicago for bánh mì, a traditional Vietnamese sandwich with a French influence.
The trendy Vietnamese restaurant boasts marble counters complemented by multicolored chandeliers to create a chic décor. The wall behind the counter offers mouth-watering pictures of the many styles of bánh mì. The man at the counter was exceptionally friendly; he remembered my multiple calls for directions and teased me about them.
Start the meal off with two classic Vietnamese flavored smoothies, avocado and taro. While the avocado smoothie is delicious, it doesn’t recall avocado too strongly, simply boasting hints of sweetness and richness. The taro smoothie really resounds. Taro, a sort of “Asian potato,” tastes like a cross between a sweet potato and the childhood-favorite buttered popcorn Jelly Belly. The most enjoyable part of the smoothies, however, are the tapioca pearls, almost-gummy spheres of textural bliss. While the smoothies are unique and very well priced at under $4 for a twenty ounce smoothie, the bánh mì steals the show.
Bánh mì literally means “bread” in Vietnamese while specifically referring to the Vietnamese and French-influenced sandwich prepared on a modified baguette. The bánh mì baguette is more airy and has a thinner crust than the typical French baguette. Unlike your mother’s regular PB&J, which is usually accompanied by chips, banh mi comes with fresh cucumber slices, cilantro, and pickled, shredded carrots and daikon.
At Nhu Lan Saigon Subs, the bread, baked in-house, is still slightly warm. The weak crust crackles softly with every bite through the seemingly-aerated, fluffy bread. If I am wrong, call me a fool: but I am a firm believer that few things can conquer properly prepared bread.
I was a fool. The actual ingredients of the sandwich were to the bread as grandma’s cooking is to a microwave meal. In the #5 Paté Belly-Porkrolls and the #17 Chinese Roast Pork bánh mì, both preparations of the pork are so tender that they feel like they’re dissolving in your mouth. The pork paté is buttery and the flavor recalls unsalted bacon, while the caramelization of the Chinese roast pork lingers in your mouth.
The crispy herbs and vegetables prevent the richness of the pork from becoming overwhelming. While the cucumber crunches through potentially greasy meat, the pickled and shredded carrots and daikon provide a slightly sweet yet acidic presence that leaves the taste buds refreshed after each bite. Finally, the cilantro added just that little bit of ‘kick.’ My Vietnamese friend recommended adding some Sriracha hot sauce, which elevated the sandwich from delicious to sublime.
In Dante’s world, those who sinned were in Hell, those who did good acts were in Heaven and those who did neither were in the vestibule. In my world, those who enjoy Nhu Lan Saigon Subs’ bánh mì are in culinary heaven, those who do not enjoy its bánh mì are in hell and those who have never had a chance to enjoy them are in the vestibule. Please take my advice and pick Nhu Lan Saigon Subs as your next culinary destination of choice.
Price Range: $
Address: 602 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago, IL 60657
Hours of Operation: Mon, Wed-Fri 11:00 am to 9:00 p.m.; Sat-Sun 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.