Bánh mì makes it downtown

If you don’t know what that is, Food Shop is a good place to start

You don’t see the jalapeño here, but you will feel it.
  • You don’t see the jalapeño here, but you will feel it.

Food Shop

455 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

Before my friends got paranoid about gluten, we used to make a lot of bánh mì runs. With rare exception, these were always in the direction of City Heights. There are some great options to be found in Little Saigon, and they’re cheap. I never would have thought to find a good one mid Gaslamp. Then I heard about Food Shop.

In the shadow of Sovereign

In the shadow of Sovereign

I knew Sovereign Kitchen & Bar had opened a neighboring grab-and-go counter of some kind, but I didn’t get how it worked. And since there’s no big sign out front that says “Food Shop,” it took me a while to spot it. The shallow storefront has a few tables and chairs, but a polished wood counter dominates the room, with a wide open view into the kitchen behind it. It’s simple, it’s clean. It doesn’t look like much. However…

Michael Bao Huynh, aka Iron Chef Vietnam, is no longer with Sovereign, but he was when Food Shop opened. In other words, the place has perfect mix of authenticity and culinary cred. At around $6 to $10 an entrée, you get a choice of rice or vermicelli noodle bowls topped by BBQ pork, rotisserie chicken, fish satay, or organic tofu. A range of pho offerings feature brisket, meatballs, or seafood (no tendon or tripe in sight). And wok stir fries include drunken noodles.

What is bánh mì? The Food Shop menu wants to tell you.

What is bánh mì? The Food Shop menu wants to tell you.

But I had to start my experience with bánh mì. Especially since the menu tempted me with a large, gringo-friendly What Is Bánh Mì? graphic depicting all the toppings you may expect on the classic French-infused Vietnamese sandwich.

First, there’re the cilantro, daikon, and jalapeños. As veggie sandwich toppings go, it’s hard to think of another combination of such distinctly provocative flavors. They’re somewhat cooled by the presence of cucumber and mayo and kept from being overwhelming with a crusty fresh-baked baguette.

Of course, the protein’s where it’s at with this sandwich. In Little Saigon each choice would be under $3 to $4 a sandwich, and I’d go for two without thinking twice. Here they’re $6 to $8, so for my lunchtime visit I wanted to choose wisely. BBQ beef or chicken? Spicy fish? Veggie?

Okay, the latter included pickled veggies, tofu, and mushroom. Sounds reasonable, but no. Classic bánh mì all the way. In modern parlance you might call it pork four ways: roasted pork, pork roll, terrine, and pâté. I dig on swine, but I’m a downright sucker for pâté on a sandwich.

It was served quickly, and the bánh mì was full of high points. The baguette is from a local bakery called A La Francaise and pretty legit, soft yet crispy enough to chew. The jalapeño had some real heat, and all the vegetables contributed texture. The various pig products were quality as well, delivering pork satisfaction without heavy salt.

I’m won over and curious to try other meats and other dishes. I can’t say I’d always pick it over something wrapped in wax paper and rubber bands from City Heights, but to anyone who’s never tried bánh mì before, try the Food Shop.

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A La Francaise? I thought that bakery closed a long time ago. Is there another location, or where is the one you mention in this story?

I've been working on that. Food Shop crew has twice told me that's the source of their bread, but I haven't yet reached an owner or manager to explain any potential new location for business model. Food Shop is new enough that I doubt they would still be referencing a defunct business.

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