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Banh Mi Barista
Out of a possible five

Vietnamese sandwiches, smoothies hit spot

Its name created a bit of confusion at first.

Was Banh Mi Barista a coffee shop? What is banh mi?

The only place I knew to get traditional Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches was on weekends at the Hoa Hung Oriental Grocery on Calhoun Street, even though they have been a hot food trend nationwide.

And when you think barista, you think coffeehouse employee.

Well, this little restaurant on Coldwater Road across from the Coldwater Crossing shopping center has both, so the name fits.

I cannot eat Vietnamese without washing it down with a café sua da iced coffee, and the ones at Banh Mi Barista were worth stopping in for. Strong coffee is mixed with sweetened condensed milk and poured over ice to make a refreshing and blood sugar-raising treat. Banh Mi also has a nifty plastic-wrap cup sealer that makes getting one on the go a breeze.

There was also a large variety of smoothies and milk and black, red and green teas in – or with – a variety of unique flavors such as lychee, winter melon and taro. But I had to try one in particular after reading raving posts online about it – the avocado smoothie. This bright green beverage was thick and creamy like a milkshake, but there was no ice cream in it. The avocado is what gave it that smoothie consistency, along with a little milk, of course. The avocado flavor was there, but it was mild, and the smoothie was delicious.

Customers can also opt to have tapioca pearls or fruit juice-filled gelatin balls added to drinks. The strawberry juice balls were a big hit in my kids’ mango smoothies. I can also vouch for the watermelon smoothie being awesome.

The banh mi at Banh Mi Barista were also awesome.

The signature version was a fusion of sorts with Korean barbecued beef. The thinly sliced top sirloin was grilled to have a little texture and char but was still tender and juicy. It had that signature salty-sweet flavor from its marinade that went perfectly with the thin strips of house-pickled daikon radish and carrot, crunchy cucumbers, jalapeno circles – seeds and all – for plenty of heat and fresh cilantro that rounded it out nicely with its herby, floral flavor.

The sandwiches were served on basic submarine rolls instead of traditional baguette, but owner Will Le said he will soon start making his own rolls or have someone making them soon. Those rolls will not be baguettes, however, and will be closer to the bread banh mi are made with near his place of birth, Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam.

A close second to the Korean barbecue was the Viet Special made with pork meatballs. The meatballs also had some sweetness and were so moist they crumbled a bit, giving the sandwich the consistency of a Sloppy Joe.

The marinated meat in the pork banh mi was grilled like the beef, and the combination of crispy bits, charred chunks and tender pieces gave it several levels of flavor.

Although the menu only lists sandwiches, Banh Mi Barista also serves rice noodle bowls with basically the same ingredients as the sandwiches plus crispy lettuce, fresh basil over cold noodles. It comes with peanut dressing and fish sauce on the side to add to your liking.

The beef bowl had that same grilled beef, and the combination of the hot meat over the cold noodles and greens was fantastic. It was like a big noodle salad as there were a lot of greens. The peanut sauce was sweet and creamy with a touch of sesame flavor, and the fish sauce added a briny, salty flavor to the dish.

There were many off-menu items I sampled at Banh Mi Barista. There was a sweet sticky barbecued pork-stuffed bun, a Chinese sausage and a fabulous sticky rice dessert made with coconut syrup. The restaurant also offers traditional Vietnamese pho soup on Fridays and Sundays.

Le said he is working on a menu change that will include the rice noodle bowls and the restaurant’s spring rolls and egg rolls, which are always available. The pork buns, sausages and desserts, as well as some daily soup offerings, will continue to appear randomly whenever someone on the staff is in the mood to make them, he said.

All three of the rolls at Banh Mi – pork egg rolls, shrimp and pork spring rolls and vegetarian spring rolls – were favorable. The vegetarian roll was the best of the lot with carrot, daikon, lettuce, cucumber, cilantro, avocado, tofu and vegan ham wrapped in moistened rice paper and served cold. They, too, came with a little peanut sauce for dipping.

The ripe avocado, which contrasted the crispy fresh vegetables and herbs, is what made these rolls stand out.

The pork and shrimp rolls – also served cold – were up to par with other versions I have had around town. The fried pork rolls were crispy and hot with nicely seasoned ground meat inside, along with cabbage, carrot and noodles. They came with a sweet and sour dipping sauce.

Living up to the last part of its name, Banh Mi Barista is set up like a coffee shop. You order at the counter, food is brought to you and whirring blenders echo throughout the strip mall space.

It is more function than form in terms of atmosphere, but its peach and light green paint scheme and new furnishings made it plenty comfortable.

The service was great with only a few unavoidable hiccups. During one visit, the restaurant was out of turkey, so my son’s club sandwich became a ham sandwich. Another time there were only three fried egg rolls left instead of the four that usually come in an order. But the folks there just knocked a dollar off and served me three, and those three hit the table as soon as I did because the employees listen to orders as they come in to get a jump on things.

I was also checked on regularly, and the folks there seemed genuinely thankful for the business and curious to find out how my party liked everything.

And that kind of attitude goes a long way toward bringing me back.

Almost as much as my craving for another of those awesome avocado smoothies.

Restaurant: Banh Mi Barista

Address: 5320 Coldwater Road

Phone: 387-7222

Hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Vietnamese

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes, but no menu

Menu: Iced coffee ($3), smoothies ($3.75 small; $4.25 large), pork banh mi ($3.50), Korean BBQ banh mi ($4), Viet Special ($4)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.