Fried Tofu and Waffles
Exploring the secrets of Banh Mi Coda
Banh Mi Coda, a Vietnamese sandwich shop, deli and tofu house across the parking lot from Talin Market, is what you'd expect to find in a big-city Asian district. It's the type of place that requires a certain percentage of its clientele to already know what is going on, because while the bright, spotless space is attractive and inviting, the myriad of unusual dishes and absence of explanation can be disorienting to the uninitiated.
The sing-song patter of Vietnamese is often the dominant language in the small, five-table dining room, but Americans of all ethnicities pack the place, waiting in the order line with the comfortable disinterest of somebody who knows exactly what they want. For many, the dish of choice comes from the selection of banh mi—Vietnamese sandwiches, photographs of which hang on the wall.
Newbies can walk around and puzzle over the various unlabeled items lining the shelves of the warm and cold display cases. These cases are constantly restocked and shuffled by silent women who appear from the back bearing trays loaded with various dishes, everything in to-go packaging. There are boxes of sticky rice covered in sweet technicolor frostings, leafy salads topped with sliced Vietnamese deli meats, and salads of shredded papaya with chile, jerky and basil leaves. In the cooler, there are half-gallon jugs of homemade soy milk, faintly fragrant with pandan leaf. On a shelf are bags of house-made rice crackers.
When you reach the ordering counter, you stare down rows of fried blocks of house-made tofu—both plain and with mushrooms and scallions inside. Fifty cents gets you a sizable block and a dish of dipping sauce. This being a tofu house, it shouldn't come as a surprise that it's off-the-charts amazing. It's bright white, soft and loose inside, and billows of tofu eagerly fall out of the thin, fried skin that barely holds it together.
Next to the tofu is a case of hot, savory French-style pastries. As a legacy of Vietnam's colonization by France, Vietnam has a strong tradition of French baking—hence the fact that Vietnamese sandwiches are sold on French baguette (Banh Mi Coda bakes these for other purveyors of Vietnamese sandwiches as well). The warm pastries, called chauds, are stuffed with either pork or green chile and chicken and are clad in the flakiest of French pastry dough; it shatters into billions of pieces upon each contact with your mouth. These beautiful and tasty chauds earn extra points for the use of local greens in this very international dish.
On the counter behind the ordering station, sharp eyes might spot a waffle iron sitting quietly. It's easy to miss, and there is no mention of waffles on the menu. But you ignore that waffle iron at your own peril.
Repeat: Do not leave without a waffle. The experience of eating one of these waffles is a cross between what catnip does to a cat and how cotton candy tastes to a 4-year-old. The waffles are made of coconut and tapioca, and bear the green tint and otherwordly sweet fragrance of pandan leaf. The waffle's exterior is flaky, while the inside is molten coconut nougat that's fun to chew but doesn't put up a fight.
Banh Mi Coda is a deli in addition to being a sandwich shop and tofu house, but I don't find its house-made deli meats that interesting. Not the banana leaf-wrapped Vietnamese ham that comes sliced on salad, nor the soft shredded pork skin in the spring roll, or the head cheese in the Number 1 sandwich.
Tofu is clearly the king of proteins here, and I prefer to play into a restaurant's strengths. That would be the tofu sandwich. A section of freshly baked baguette, hard on the outside but ethereal in the middle, is packed with pickled daikon and carrots, along with jalapeños, Vietnamese mayo, cilantro and generous chunks of that heavenly tofu.
The spring rolls are another way to play the tofu angle. I reserve top kudos for spring rolls that are tight and solid, while those at Banh Mi Coda are a bit loose. But it's an elegant, decadent sort of looseness, with a buxom consistency similar to the tofu itself. Big mint leaves and slices of juicy cucumber give this sandwich a clean, fresh flavor that will satisfy all but those with a serious meat-tooth. And if that's you, there is a wide selection of deli meats that can be added to your sandwich in place of, or alongside, the tofu.
There is probably something for everyone at Banh Mi Coda. All you have to do is poke around until you find it.
230-C Louisiana Blvd SE (next to Café Trang, across parking lot from Talin)
Hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday
9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday
Range: $.50 (brick of tofu) to $4.50 (sandwich) per meal
Vibe: strange and inviting
Vegetarian options: yes
Alibi recommends: Tofu sandwich or spring roll, green chile chicken chaub, and don’t forget the secret waffle.