As the name indicates, Caphe also sells meaty banh mi, each served in a paper-lined basket with ringlets of jalapeño neatly stacked outside the baguette so you can control the pepper heat of your sandwich. The classic banh mi — a pig-intensive bite with sliced ham, country pâte, headcheese and cha lua sausage
DECEMBER 23, 2016
features the slender, seahorseshaped outline of Vietnam, along with a series of raised letters, whose shadows spell out the names of major Vietnamese cities. The tabletops look like autumn leaves were trapped in amber. The place gives the average strip-center pho parlor an inferiority complex.
— hits many of the right notes, although the kitchen stiffed me on pickled vegetables. Without its acid tongue, the sandwich was an exercise in unctuousness. The pork shoulder banh mi trades mostly on its grilled meat, the other flavors retreating to the corners of the crusty bread, even the garlicky Vietnamese mayo. Even though Huynh prides herself on recreating the fresh, fragrant, fishy flavors that she savored in central Vietnam, she’s no straitjacketed purist. Her “sloppy Viet” banh mi is described as a baguette packed
dria restaurant is a graceful rejoinder to her detractors, who happen to be relatives. Huynh used to help run a handful of Yogiberry frozen yogurt shops with her family, but they had a falling out. “According to my family, I couldn’t do anything on my own,” Huynh says. Caphe Banh Mi is evidence to the contrary, starting with the arty space itself. One section is reserved for the most tasteful wall map I’ve ever seen in a restaurant: A chalky white wall
Top: The tiny Caphe Banh Mi in Old Town Alexandria fills up fast, so expect to wait by the door. Above left: Owner and chef My Huynh’s restaurant features a wall map of Vietnam surrounded by city names. Above right: The charbroiled catfish and vermicelli, another dish that needs little doctoring.
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DINER FROM 8
with “spicy red curry ground beef,” but don’t let the semiSouth Asian language fool you: It’s basically sloppy joe meat spooned into that roll, a sweetand-spicy tomato mixture that Huynh developed to appease her kids. The sandwich is definitely engineered for a kid’s palate. While not as obvious as the banh mi for junior high cafeterias, other dishes also appear to acquiesce to Westernized palates. The dipping sauce known as nuoc cham strikes me as sweeter and less fishy at Caphe than at similar outlets at, say, the Eden Center. Yet that’s not necessarily a dealbreaker. The crisp, chewy imperial rolls pack plenty of flavor — crab, shrimp, pork, wood-ear mushrooms — without demanding the intoxicating umami punch of fish sauce. The same holds true for the charbroiled catfish that lounges atop vermicelli noodles: The fillet, prepared with turmeric and dill, actually tastes better without nuoc cham. Its texture is less flaccid, too. Of course, just when I thought I had sized up Caphe, the place would upend my expectations. Like the evening I ordered a vermicelli bowl paired with slices of grilled pork, crushed peanuts, mint, pickled daikon and big blocks of fried imperial roll. This time, the accompanying nuoc cham smelled as if a million little anchovies had died for the cause, their pungent juices supplying that rotting wave of deliciousness that ties together the best Vietnamese food. If I had zeroed in on my favorite dishes at Caphe — the pho, the catfish and pork vermicelli bowls, the filet mignon salad with its fresh, elevating notes of mint — I was still no closer to finding a wine to pair with the house noodle soup. One night, I selected a 2012 sauvignon blanc from Chimney Rock Winery in Napa Valley, a vintage that balanced its sweet pear nectar with a mild acidity. Ugh. The wine and pho just eyed each other suspiciously the entire meal. But then my friend proceeded to madly customize her bowl, like some Dr. Phokenstein. She squeezed an entire wedge of lime into the broth, followed by another wedge and another. She also dribbled in a few dots of Sriracha. I slurped her concoction, then sipped my wine. The sauvignon blanc had suddenly found a friend, one acid seeking out another. Later, on the phone with Huynh, I related my troubles finding a decent wine to match with her noodle soup. She wasted no words: “It doesn’t work so well with pho.”