Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 3: Kim Ly of Café Shoppe

Ly's Vietnamese roots (check out chef chat parts one and two) show through all her food at Cafe Shoppe -- especially her banh mi. Her ham combination sandwich is a smorgasbord of Vietnamese salami, pork roll, pâté, and Vietnamese ham. That's a mountain of meat, but when it hits your tongue, it melts symphonically. The rich flavors mingle together sweet-and-saltily. Juxtaposed with the crisp, peppery crunch of carrots, cukes and jalapenos, this cold-cut sandwich is a total win. Cilantro means it's healthy, right?

Up next is another banh mi with grilled lemon grass beef. For me, "lemon grass" is one of those modifiers that jumps out on a menu, conjuring thoughts of zest and earthiness. More often than not, I either taste nothing or Pine Sol. But this beef is different. It's crispy with a hint of fresh, citrusy flavor. The bread is puffy and delicious, and even though it's coated with Ly's homemade buttery garlic hollandaise spread -- not to mention stuffed with beef and veggies -- it all somehow tastes light.

The lunch special du jour is traditional Chinese BBQ pork. But first, the fried rice. So fresh! So greaseless! Ly proves that fried rice can shine on its own without its slippery friend oil. The egg roll has real content: mushrooms, pork, strings of vermicelli, and shreds of jicama. Dipped in the accompanying fruity, sweet sauce, it's a treat.

A mixed house salad with peanut dressing forgives the decadence of what's next: the tender marinated pork. It's seasoned with honey, cinnamon, cloves and bean curd, and it tastes as aromatic as it sounds. The sweet edges are almost candied in honey. Ly pairs it with her homemade green tea, which she gives out to customers waiting for takeout. Slightly sweetened, she brews it with mint. This is satisfying comfort food.

Ly is sold out of green tea ice cream today, so she serves up her homemade red bean flavor. It's one of the few times I've been able to see and taste the meat of the bean shards -- usually they're chopped into specks. The ice cream is smooth and whipped, and the flavor is so great that the peanuts on top are superfluous. Keep an eye on this dessert, because Ly plans to start serving it with a tempura jack fruit coated in sesame, a twist on her Japanese favorite banana tempura. I, for one, can't wait.

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Mandy Oaklander
Contact: Mandy Oaklander