One of the biggest problems with tunnel eating is the shocking lack of variety - it's dominated by pizza, burgers, sandwiches, plate lunches. That's why we tunnel diners can tend to be a bit more forgiving whenever someone offers a novel food. It might not be the best-in-class version of Senegalese Dibi, but it's better than eating at Alonti for the third time this week, damn it!
Okay, so there's no Senegalese food in the tunnels, at least not that I'm aware of. There is, however, Café Basil. I was shocked and delighted when I found out that the former Philly Connection location was being replaced by a Vietnamese spot offering everything from phở to bánh mì.
It turns out that Café Basil is a bit of a mixed bag. The bánh mì - with its iceberg lettuce, soft bread, and near $6 price tag - is a definite no. The bún, however, is tasty and filling, with properly cooked vermicelli, nice chewy-crispy barbecued pork, and surprisingly pungent fish sauce. It's not the most authentic version (again with that ice-berg), but it's certainly close enough to be a nice change of pace.
Most recently, I decided I needed to sample Café Basil's phở after hearing from a few tunnel-dining friends that it was a fair version.
The broth, the cornerstone of the dish, was so-so, with decent depth and savoriness, but little of the aromatic head-rush that comes from the traditional addition of spices like star anise and cinnamon. It was tasty, but not as subtle and nuanced as it should have been. The meats, a mix of well-done flank and fatty brisket, were well prepared, tender and flavorful.
The noodles were a disappointment for two reasons, one of which was at least partially my fault. First, these were more like standard thin vermicelli than the flat, somewhat broad noodles that give phở its name. Second, and this is where I come in, was the fact that the noodles were overcooked. My late arrival, well after the lunch rush, may have had something to do with it. It looked as if they fished my noodles, pre-cooked, from a rice-steamer. Perhaps if I'd shown up earlier, I'd have gotten them right as they'd been prepared.
My biggest issue, though, came from the stinginess of the condiment options. One of my favorite things about phở is the ritualistic process of adding basil, cilantro, jalapeños etc. to my soup, until the perfect level of spicy-herbal-sweet has been reached. Café Basil really needs to step up its game in the phở customization department. A few scant slices of chile and a handful of bean sprouts were about it, along with serve-yourself squeeze bottles of Sriracha and hoisin.
Lest it sound like I'm coming down against Café Basil, let me be clear. I'm glad it's there. I would never go out of my way to eat there, but it's not out of the way at all, and serves as a much-needed change of pace. As far as downtown dining compromises go, it's certainly one I'm willing to make. Now, if they could just get their hands on some herbs, and get rid of that damn lettuce. . .