Tunnel Explorer: Top Taste Asian Subs and Grill

One of my first tunnel explorations had me hopefully sampling Vietnamese food, resulting in something of a lukewarm response. Funny, then, that I've found myself missing Cafe Basil since my office moved to the other end of downtown. When I noticed a new stall in the food court under McKinney Place, promising "Asian Subs," my interest was cautiously piqued. I could swallow a whitewashed euphemism for bánh mì, as long as the taste held true.

Top Taste Asian Subs and Grill opened back in August, as far as I can tell, but I only stumbled upon it recently. As expected, this isn't a wholly authentic take on Vietnamese food. As long as you go in with that understanding, though, it will do in a pinch (as seems to be the theme in so much tunnel dining).

I opted for an "Asian Sub" and a Vietnamese Iced Coffee, hoping to get close to one of my favorite quick lunches of bánh mì and cà phê sữa đá. Dubious of the restaurant's inclusion of Swiss cheese on their signature sandwich, I requested half of my full size (foot-long) sandwich with and half without, and was smilingly obliged. The rest of the sandwich construction seemed reasonably up to snuff, with a baguette-style loaf split and stuffed with chargrilled pork, vegetables, and herbs. A quick run through an impinger oven was a nice touch, lending a bit of crispness and character to what was otherwise utterly ignorable bread.

Despite its crisping run through the impinger, the bread had lost much of its crunch by the time I made it back to my desk. I suspect that it would have held up better had I eaten it on sight, but the cottony interior was no match for its moist contents. The pork had nice flavor, though it was a bit too reminiscent of teriyaki, as if it were going for a more mall-food-court-friendly flavor profile. The vegetables were nice and crunchy, with cooling cucumber and slightly sweet carrot bringing things a little more in line with the proper bánh mì experience. Pickled Thai chiles added a nice heat, but the sweetness unbalanced things a bit. Top Taste is not shy with the cilantro, which is nice.

As I mentioned, I was not convinced of the cheese, but it's actually not a bad idea, adding a touch of creaminess and (blessedly) little actual cheese flavor. I think it might be intended as an oddly effective stand-in for the copious amounts of mayonnaise and pate I usually want on my bánh mì.

While it makes for a relatively flavorful and satisfying sandwich in a vacuum, it lacks the big, bright flavors typical of bánh mì; there's no zing of jalapeño or funk of fish sauce, and the sate-flavored soy squirted liberally on top doesn't really punch things up much. Throughout, you get the impression punches are distinctly being pulled to cater to a less adventurous palate expected from a tunnel audience.

The cà phê sữa đá was similarly afflicted, tasting thin and weak. I strongly suspect normal brewed coffee was used instead of the hi-test mug-top-drip-filter stuff more commonly employed. The drink was also shy on sweetened condensed milk; I want that one-two sucker punch of intense coffee and toothache sweet milk, the Harvey Dent of caffeinated beverages.

If you think of Top Taste as a purveyor of bánh mì and cà phê sữa đá, you're liable to come away disappointed. I don't think it's their intention to be an authentic option. At least not now. I plan on going back and encouraging them along, asking for fish sauce instead of soy here, or perhaps some fresh jalapeño in lieu of the pickled chiles there. They do enough things right that I think all it would take is a little nudge, a show of good faith and accepting palates, for Top Taste for them to give me what I, and I suspect they, want. We will, of course, have to do something about that bread.

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