SA PA: Building a Better Banh Mi

As I have written about here previously, I love Vietnamese food, so much so that I request it coming out from anesthesia. Anything with fish sauce will do, but I also love a good banh mi sandwich, that post-colonial combination of Asian flavors on a crunchy French baguette. When I was working at BU, I would take the 57 bus to get my fix at the Super 88 food court.

I do have one pet peeve about the standard recipe, and that is that almost every banh mi comes with pork pate standard. That’s a no go for me, so I always have to order it without. Don’t get me wrong, I like it without just fine, but sometimes I do feel like I’m missing out on the full banh mi experience.

That’s why I was excited to try out a new Vietnamese place that opened in Cleveland Circle in Brighton, not far from our house. It’s called SA PA, and it’s been open since May. (There’s also a Chinatown location that’s been open longer). The SA PA banh mi is made with a walnut-mushroom pate instead of the standard pork. The owner, Ky, told me he uses the veggie spread because it’s tastier and healthier, to boot.

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The decor is sleek and modern, wood floors and counters with red and sky blue accents. On the walls are photos of the owner’s family from their time in Saigon. The menu is similarly streamlined, with a few entrees available with a choice of protein, a couple sides, and the classic Vietnamese iced beverages. (The Cleveland Circle location also serves beer and liqueur cocktails.) In a nod to the college clientele, you can get your banh mi in a burrito instead of a baguette.

I brought Rich and Lilli along to sample the menu. I got the tofu banh mi with the walnut mushroom “pate”, with a side order of avocado summer rolls, fresh kimchi, and a chili mint limeade to drink. The sandwich came with the standard pickled daikon and carrots and fresh sprigs of cilantro, but also had sliced grapes, a fun and offbeat touch that really worked. It was a great vegetarian sandwich, full of fresh flavors and just the right amount of spice. Another common frustration of mine is shellfish lurking in kimchi, but I chatted with the chef about their version, which turned out to be crustacean-free. Rich got a big bowl of pho soup with slow-braised beef (brisket, we think) and thinly sliced rare beef that cooked in the broth, with crispy eggrolls and a Vietnamese Iced Coffee. We ordered Lilli a big bowl of vermicelli noodles, but she quickly took to Rich’s soup!

We very much enjoyed our meal at SA PA, and perhaps more importantly, I now know where to find a delicious pork-free banh mi without sacrificing an important ingredient.

SA PA has two locations in Boston: 93 Bedford Street in Downtown/Chinatown, and 1952 Beacon Street in Cleveland Circle. Visit http://www.sa-pa.com for menus and directions.

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