Caphe Bánh Mì
407 Cameron St.
Alexandria, VA 22314
Neighborhood: Alexandria, Old Town
Open Tuesday through Friday 11 AM to 2 PM and 4 to 9 PM, Saturday 11 AM to 9 PM, Sunday noon to 9.
Nearby Metro Stops: King Street-Old Town
Price Range: Inexpensive
The bánh mì, a.k.a. Vietnamese sub, has become such a staple of the local dining scene that the arrival of a full-service restaurant devoted to it was inevitable. Caphe Bánh Mì, at the edge of Old Town, begins with the premise that diners have already explored the labyrinth of restaurants in Falls Church's Eden Center, the area's de facto Little Vietnam, or the surrounding neighborhoods that contain such treasures as Bánh Mì DC Sandwich. There's no explanation of the sandwich, a creation that marries three of the culinary glories of France--a light, crusty baguette, a slab of pâté, a smear of mayonnaise--with the punch of Vietnamese cooking, embodied in pickled daikon and carrot and a sprinkling of cilantro.
There are seven varieties to choose from, fewer than the many on offer at Bánh Mì DC Sandwich or at the Eden Center's Song Que. Here, you can ask a server to make a recommendation or request a substitution--neither of which is easy at the Eden Center, where English is often a second language.
While I've had baguettes that were crunchier, the ones here are only a rung below the best. But it's the fillings that provide much of the interest. Beyond the Classic ($5)--a combination of pâté, mortadella, ham, and head cheese that summons both a French jambon-and-butter and an Italian cold-cut sub--there's a concoction called Ha Noi Cat Fish ($7) that deep-fries the bottom-feeder and slathers on Sriracha mayo. Another combines mortadella with a sunnyside-up egg ($5); when you press it, the yolk provides the sauce. It's sloppy, but in the best way.
The pho ($8 to $9) is satisfying if not distinguished. The same goes for thebun ($9 to $16), grilled-meat-topped noodle salads tossed at the table. If you're looking for more than sandwiches, go for summer rolls ($5) or a salad with caramelized walnuts and orange-ginger dressing ($6).
For dessert, there's frozen yogurt ($6) from the local franchise Yogiberry. An odd choice--until you discover that Mimi Huynh, a co-owner of Caphe, started the chain. Randy Phillips, one of her partners, was a member of the TC Williams High School state-championship football team memorialized in the movie Remember the Titans.
Caphe Bánh Mì isn't likely to be immortalized in film or to be franchised. It'll have to settle for being a tasty, tranquil pit stop for cost-conscious diners.
This article appears in the May 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.