April 3, 2008

Ithaca Bites: Cà Phê House

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Jimmy and Fernando are cut from the same cloth, the same loin — brothers in minor gourmandry. As youths in Queens, the two friends likely spent an eyebrow-raising number of hours ruminating and masticating over pork buns and pastries in backwater gems.
Last fall, before I’d met the founders of the Cà Phê House, or guessed at their foodie parallels, all I knew about the grape-colored, unmarked building on Dryden was that it was soon to be home to a treasure of street gourmet: the humble, inimitable Bánh Mì. I no doubt spazzed-out a few flying fist-pumps when a worker shuffling about inside broke the news. The great bánh mì had arrived unexpectedly in little Ithaca — and dangerously close to my current residence.
The bánh mì, which loosely translates as “sandwich,” is a Vietnamese creation that borrows piecemeal from French culinary traditions. While the sandwich’s innards are more typical of Southeast Asian fare, the French influence is apparent in the crispy chew of the baguette and the ovals of pâté.
First on the menu is the bánh mì đặc biệt, or “The Special.” This heart-breaker runs over with sanguine pinks and visceral grays — thick cuts of ham (don’t dare think cold cuts), pâté and pork. the Special, as with most options, brims with a trio of briny vegetables. There will be no weaklings on the bánh mì, to which the bright veggies and carefully chosen cilantro attest. Sprigs of cool cilantro are laid atop the sandwich’s contents as a substitute for the busy-ness of sprouts or the watery, depressed mess of some hacked lettuce. It is about time that someone take a stand against tacky, minimally processed sliced mushrooms and insipid lettuce. We are not turtles (although imitating the turtle’s chew is quite enjoyable).
As minimal as any proper bánh mì shack, the menu contains no “Rick’s favorite” food items and no breathy taglines (“hydroponically grown arugula gathered by first generation Italian grandmothers at noon”). Instead, in plain sight, five simple sandwich choices are written in chalk. Moving down the board, we find the Vegetarian and the Vietnamese Press. The former, while horrendously meatless and drearily titled, is a surprising feast of marinated portabella mushroom, julienned and pickled carrots, daikon radish and a wedge of cucumber. As for the Vietnamese Press, IMMEDIATELY get this sandwich: orange alert status. Leave your seat in the back of lecture and power walk to Dryden Road (so long as it is between 10am and 8pm — the Cà Phê House’s current hours).
Realizing that you cannot leave with just one, also nab the Mack and do not ask questions. The word mackerel is far from appetizing — your hesitancy is noted — but be advised, this delectable bánh mì contains a barbecued, perfectly cooked slice of spicy, dark sea-chicken. The sandwich is $7 dollars for a reason, dammit.
Mornings are not forgotten at the Cà Phê House. The egg and cheese bánh mì is a must-try for the bagel set. And for the loose among you: the French Toast, served with condensed milk. These are all well and good, but if you give a moose a muffin, you must also give him a Vietnamese Coffee. Imagine, as a youth in Philadelphia, my stomach is tripping over my first delectable bánh mì, and then I wash it with a thick and unexpectedly sweet coffee. Polarized confusion. Absolute deliciousness. The secret? Vietnamese Coffee is made with smack … err, French-pressed coffee and a ½ tablespoon or so of sweetened condensed milk (devilish!). It also can be accessorized with ice cubes for seasonal variety.
Are you getting me man! Must I mention their chocolate chip cookies — best outside of the Carriage House?