Brand-New Banh Mi at Cafe Shoppe

In the 17 years since Kim Hung Supermarket opened on St. Emmanuel, the once bustling stores inside have mostly closed down and the structure -- except for the long-running grocery store that takes up the left half of the mall -- has become a ghost town.

This, of course, makes its sunny, airy food court the ideal place for a quiet weekday lunch. Back in February, former Eating Our Words blogger Greenway Barista talked about grabbing a rice box for lunch from Long Sing Market, the meat counter inside the grocery store. And at that time, Hoang Son was still operating a little bahn mi stand in the "food court" at the center of the mall.

Hoang Son has since closed up shop, but the wonderful little Cafe Shoppe (1005 St. Emmanuel) has taken its place. Or at least it will on Friday, when it has its proper grand opening. I was lucky enough on Wednesday afternoon to stumble in and get a sneak preview of the food, including a banh mi so good it reminded me of the first magical time I ate one of the Vietnamese sandwiches.

For now, Cafe Shoppe is located behind a giant iron gate. It made for some interesting manuvering as a few customers climbed on chairs to get their to-go boxes from the folks on the other side. A kid with a big smile behind the register preemptively apologized for the limited menu as he took my order, offering my drink and egg rolls for free since they only had a few options until Friday.

"We're going to be offering half off our lunch specials and half off the smoothies," he grinned, pointing to the small food menu and large drink menu on the wall behind him. The hot day had me craving a taro smoothie, but they didn't have all the ingredients in yet for smoothies -- only the cold drinks in the freezer were available. Luckily, they had everything on hand to make a barbecue pork banh mi, or simply a "sandwich." There's no actual reference to banh mi on the menu.

When the sandwich arrived, I was instantly smitten with the look of it: a baguette stuffed full of the red-ringed pork, which I watched them slice fresh for the sandwich, along with a thick handful of sliced carrots, fat cucumber and jalapeno spears and a tangled heap of cilantro. No skimping on ingredients here.

The pork was slightly fatty, with a sweet tang that bounced playfully off the sharp cilantro and bright cucumbers. Small, white seeds still clung heavily to the jalapeno spears, making the corners of my mouth burn. But that didn't stop me from inhaling most of the sandwich as quickly as possible. Best of all was the crunchy baguette, just soft enough on the inside to prevent all the sandwich fillings from squeezing out of one end as I bit into it, shards of bread peppering the little blue table in the food court.

Perhaps $3 is normally a little expensive for a banh mi, but Cafe Shoppe's sandwich was worth every penny. And I'm also willing to pay a little extra to see Vietnamese places still making a go of it in "old Chinatown" instead of letting the EaDo concept entirely take over. There's something to be said for history, even if it only dates back to 1993 (the year Kim Hung was built, not the year Chinatown got started -- just to clear that up).

Cafe Shoppe is currently only open for lunch. I'm eager for people to try its excellent banh mi and revitalize the quiet mall, where a cooler full of durian sat looking half-abandoned outside the grocery store on Wednesday afternoon. And, hey, if banh mi isn't your thing, Cafe Shoppe also sells Peking duck for $15.95 each.

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