Most of us, in this lifetime, will probably not experience firsthand the sights, sounds, and smells of Saigon and the outlying areas. We won't ever pay a few dong to a street vendor assembling cold cuts, pâté, and vegetables into a classic bánh mì thit nguoi for lunch. As such, we are reliant upon the sizable Vietnamese diaspora to replicate that experience as authentically as possible within the Austin city limits.
Despite the fact that there are dozens of Vietnamese joints on either end of the city doling out freshly made bánh mì – complete with house made baguettes, bologna, and pâté – Dave Paul, Mark Greenberg, and Sean Greenberg decided that what Austin really needed was "approachable, easily accessible, authentic Vietnamese cuisine." This summer, the founders of local hot wings chain Pluckers opened Dang Bánh Mì, located a mere mile from the nearest acclaimed bánh mì joint (Thanh Nhi, 9200 N. Lamar*) in service to that goal.
Using a 100-year-old family recipe learned over the course of several visits to the proprietor of Bánh Mì Phuong street stand in Hoi An, a city on the south central coast of Vietnam, Paul and the Greenberg brothers offer up roughly half a dozen variations on the iconic sandwich, which dates back (roughly) to French colonization of Vietnam in the mid-19th century.
The Dang Original ($6.50), which hews most closely to an authentic bánh mì thit nguoi boasts "fifteen fresh ingredients" including three preparations of pork (char siu pork belly, steamed pork tenderloin, and ground pork) on top of house-made pâté. Unremarkable and inoffensive, the sandwich is not bad, but lacks the bright flavors of a similar sandwich from Baguette House (3.8 miles away at 10901 N. Lamar) or Tam Deli and Cafe (2.4 miles away at 8222 N. Lamar).
The char siu chicken ($6.50) fares less well; it was inedibly salty and the chicken was dry and desiccated. The Egg Mì ($5) all-day breakfast sandwich was flavorless, and the combination of Laughing Cow cheese and a fried egg resulted in an unappealingly squishy texture. The sandwich needed more crunch and a note of umami, perhaps in the form of a few drops of Maggi sauce or perhaps a bracing infusion of heat – anything to break up the monotony of pale pap. Rather than a spreadable cheese, I'd prefer a generous smear of good, salty butter, which would not only be delicious but a clever nod to the sandwich's French-colonial origins.
I'd had a good initial impression of the "limited availablilty" oxtail sandwich ($11) at a preview dinner in July and was looking forward to trying it after the restaurant opened. But when I ordered it, I was informed that it wasn't available. It seems that "limited availability" in this context means "sometimes we have it and sometimes we don't." The oxtail bánh mì is available when the restaurant brews the stock for pho, which is apparently on an as-needed basis, perhaps once, maybe twice a week.
In truth, the one sandwich worthy of a return trip is the lemongrass tofu ($6), which was a bit of a surprise. The cubes of fried tofu harmonized beautifully with the crunchy cucumber, papaya, and carrot, and the fried egg, like the Dude's rug, really tied the room together, so to speak. The baguette is plump and boasts an appropriately crackly outer crust, while the interior is fresh and spongy. Dosed with a splash of house-made Dang Sauce (basically sambal oelek), this sandwich sings, unlike its mute and sullen counterparts on the menu.
The nonsandwich options are similarly inconsistent. The som tam papaya salad ($2.50) was hair curlingly spicy on a recent visit, but not unpleasantly so. The pork and shrimp spring rolls ($5.50 for three) were fine.
Where Paul and his compatriots really overreach is with the noodle dishes, pho and bún. Dang offers a southern-style pho ($9) with a sweeter broth and bean sprouts and lime on the side. A good pho has clear broth redolent of cinnamon, star anise, clove, ginger, and onion; in my experience, a broth with a distinctive fragrance is almost always excellent. The fragrance of Dang's broth is timid and doesn't make its presence known – not a good sign. While the brisket and sirloin were appropriately tender, the broth was underdeveloped and thin. The bún ($8) fared even worse. The noodles were dry and the accompanying nuoc cham couldn't help them. Simply put, it's not a compelling dish.
Ironically, it's clear that a lot of care and attention went into the strikingly modern interior design from the colorful crosshatched wall panels to the wicker street baskets hanging from the ceiling. The soda fountain offers Maine Root sodas, which is always a plus, and diners can browse a whimsical selection of Asian snacks before placing their order at the counter. Unfortunately, that same attention to detail doesn't extend to the food. For example, the papaya and carrot in the som tam and atop the sandwiches have clearly been run through a mandoline, but the cuts are so sloppy that the vegetables are served in unseparated rafts rather than in discrete ribbons. The thin noodles arrived in a clump at the bottom of our bowl of pho, requiring us to break them up with our chopsticks before we could dive in properly. Little touches like these can either elevate a diner's experience or lead to a death by a thousand cuts.
Simply put, while Dang Bánh Mì is a promising concept (fast-casual ethnic food sanitized – rendered not Other – for the masses), some tweaks are in order. What's currently on offer is average (or below-average in some cases) execution of a less-than-imaginative interpretation of an iconic Vietnamese food. It's a classic case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
*The original version of this article listed Tan My (1601 Ohlen) as the nearest bánh mì joint. Although Tan My serves a variety of Vietnamese specialities, bánh mì is not currently on the menu.
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