First Look: Oui Banh Mi
Oui Banh Mi, just before beginning its soft opening.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
It's hard not to get excited about a phrase like "Drive-Through Banh Mi." The Vietnamese sandwich is classic Houston convenience food, and offering it via such a convenient retrieval method sounds like an Easy Button for deliciousness. Of course, a lot of that depends on the ratio of ease to tastiness. At Oui Banh Mi, the ratio is a little bit off.
When news began spreading that the former Lucky Burger space (RIP, barrel building) would find new life as a casual Vietnamese spot, serving banh mi and ca phe sua da, Montrose residents let up a mighty cheer. For many, it seemed the neighborhood was poised on the verge of a wonderful new era in which they could retrieve crusty baguettes laden with grilled meat, and sugary caffeine depth-charges, without even leaving their vehicles. As construction neared completion, the excitement was palpable. Cars would edge into the drive-through lane, just to check. Finally, a small piece of white paper popped up on the drive-through menu board, advertising a trimmed-down selection and brief hours to match as Oui Banh Mi leaned into a soft opening.
Ca phe sua da, banh mi, spring and summer rolls at Oui Banh Mi.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
Almost as soon as the place started serving, rumors of a particularly excellent iced coffee began to fly. Indeed, the unorthodox ca phe sua da at Oui Banh Mi is one of the bright spots on the menu. On your first visit, the staff may warn you that it's a bit different from most you've had, blending in some hazelnut for a different flavor profile. That profile speaks more of coconut than hazelnut, but is delicious nonetheless. It also has a luxurious texture, far creamier than most and seeming to accentuate the richer taste. It's integrated in a way many examples of the form are not. Rather than pinwheeling from achingly sweet condensed milk to Hexxus-black and bitter coffee (this is not meant to be read as a complaint; those bracing versions are beloved for a reason), the Oui Banh Mi version brings them all into a surprisingly alluring harmony.
Chargrilled pork and pate banh mi at Oui Banh Mi.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
Unfortunately, that same harmony didn't ring true in the namesake sandwich. It's not that the sandwich was necessarily bad, per se; it's just that it's not a good banh mi. Let's start with the bread. Since the name of the sandwich refers primarily to bread, that seems appropriate. Worryingly wrapped in foil, the bread didn't have any of the lovely crisp crust/airy crumb contrast that marks a fine banh mi. Instead, it was tough and almost stale seeming outside (while still managing to be overly soft), and cottony inside.
It's possible that the sandwich suffered some ill effects on its trip from drive-through to office (about ten minutes). That said, if a drive-through sandwich can't stand up to the drive portion of that equation, then something doesn't add up.
It's hard to have a good banh mi if you don't start with good bread, and it didn't get much better. Filled with the usual array of ingredients, the grilled pork and pâté banh mi was a bit overbalanced with pickled vegetables, and the pâté (which was actually pretty good, with a fine texture and assertive liver-y funk) was applied too sparingly. As for the pork, it lacked any hint of sweet/salty marinade, tasting mostly of aggressive char. That wasn't a bad thing in and of itself but, again, it didn't say banh mi. It said (and it took a while for this relationship to clarify itself, flitting around in the background like the snippets of a song you can't quite remember) "backyard cookout hamburger." Especially when combined with the dill chip effect of the pickled vegetables. It was an odd trick, and kind of an enjoyable one, but not what you'd expect from a banh mi. Perhaps if you'd never before had a banh mi, you'd walk away thinking this was a pretty tasty sandwich. It was. If you'd had a banh mi — a good banh mi — you'd walk away disappointed.
Other items sampled were so-so, neither good enough to warrant a second visit nor bad enough to make much note. Both the spring and summer rolls suffered from overly thick hunks of tough wrapper tucked in along the sides, simultaneously gummy and tough. The spring rolls had a nice note of mint, but the greenery in the summer rolls had seen better days, turning an unappealing oxidized shade at the edges. The sauce served alongside was thin and greasy, with an oddly sweet profile, like some weird version of barbecue sauce served inadvisably as dessert.
The paper on the menu board is gone now, replaced by a snazzy and colorful display. The intercom still doesn't work, so you'll have to order at the window. The staff is friendly, and the service reasonably swift. If you're in the area and jonesing for an adrenaline shot of creamy coffee goodness, the ca phe sua da is actually pretty terrific, if unusual. If the banh mi is any indication, though, Oui Banh Mi isn't the fantastic (and fantastically convenient) Vietnamese drive-through we all hoped it would be.
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