Like a Fox
The madness is spreading at SweeTea
Passion is contagious. You'll be talking to someone, and a light will just turn on behind their eyes. There's this thing. And that thing brings the whole universe into perspective. They've realized that there's an opportunity to finally explain it to someone—to guide a new mind down the path. Feverish, desperate, they try to retain their composure like a sweaty-palmed salesman whose life depends on this one big ticket.
This is always my favorite moment: When I can look them dead in the eye and say, “Hey. I'm right here with you. Let's do this.” Because I'm a sucker for passion. It doesn't matter what the thing is. If the person talking is really into it, then I'm hooked for the duration.
And the co-owner of SweeTea Bakery Cafe, Anh Nguyen, is completely into it. She proudly invites my wife and I to “take the tour” after hearing that it's our first visit to the Vietnamese bakery and sandwich shop, and then proceeds to give a detailed description of nearly every pastry displayed in cases along the length of one counter. The setup is inspired by the 85°C Bakeries in California (and around the world)—patrons grab a tray and a set of tongs and pick out what they want. The options will change daily, but both savory and sweet choices will always be available.
As she describes each piece, I say to myself, “I want that one. And that one ...” She makes eye contact regularly throughout the exchange, and back behind her eyes I can see the spark of crazy genius. The spark that says, “I've cracked the code. The universe has been laid bare before me, and it looks just like a bakery. If I could only perfect these buns …”
It turns up a notch when we near the end of the counter and the Not Your Traditional banana nut bread ($3.95). It is clearly her favorite. Her hands move like a stage magician's in front of the display as she tells us that it's made from rum-soaked bananas and coconut-milk-soaked baguette. The force of her culinary madness sweeps over me, and I can feel a whine building in my chest. I want that bread. I need it.
And then she leaves me to calculate the distance between my food lust and the space in my belly. The next few moments are full of teeth gnashing and quiet desperation before I finally settle on the banana nut bread (of course), honeycomb cake ($2.50) and a sausage bun ($4.25). I have to save room for the dish I've actually come in search of: the bánh mì sandwich.
It's been years since I've had a bánh mì, and I've been craving one the whole time. These amazing sandwiches are usually a combo of fresh cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrots, jalapeño and a choice of filling (I've seen these range from pâté, meats and tofu to head cheese and fried eggs), all of which are tucked sweetly into a French baguette.
head cheese isn't on the menu (I'll never make that mistake again), I pick out the grilled pork sandwich ($6.25) and my wife takes the tofu and fried egg ($7.75). She also orders a golden milk tea with boba ($5.30). Nguyen offers to warm up the banana nut bread while we wait for the sandwiches, and my wife offers me a sip of her tea. It's deliciously smooth and sweet.
Nguyen brings the warm bread over and I tell myself I'll save some of it for later. I already know it's a lie the second the first bite makes it past my teeth. Moist but light, the flavors of rum and overripe bananas lightly tango across my taste buds. It's sweet, tangy and rich, but not overwhelming at all. I have to restrain myself from gobbling it down like an animal, making ecstatic noises with each bite. When she returns with the rest of our order, I'm at a loss for words. “This is great,” I say. “Really, really great.”
With hardly a beat, I dive into the grilled pork bánh mì. The baguette is made in-house, and so is the mayonnaise. The first bite is like running into an old friend. The meat is sweet and tender, and the bread is soft and perfect. As with all good bánh mì sandwiches, it leaves me feeling clean and refreshed. I then try the tofu and fried egg sandwich (which sounds like boring on top of boring), and am wildly surprised at how flavorful and dense it seems. I sneak a few more bites before my wife starts to complain.
As I near the end of the meal, I ignore my complaining tummy and sneak my hand into our to-go bag and pinch off a bit of the sausage bun. It's a beautiful piece of work. Sausage slices and green chiles nest in a twisting, buttery pastry that is crispy on the outside and doughy in the middle. It's basically what a kolache would look like if it were served in a palace.
Ignoring my better judgement—my stomach groaning angrily at me—I push past the sausage bun and pull out the honeycomb cake. Surely there's room for a tiny bite? Honeycomb cake is sweet, sticky and spongy. (It's made with tapioca starch, and the resulting texture probably runs off most Westerners, so be forewarned.) I've always been a fan, and SweeTea's version of the classic left nothing to be desired. Except maybe an extra stomach or two.
Which leads me to my only complaint: The place is way too close to my apartment, and I don't know if my body can handle all the carbs and deliciousness. I am weak, dear reader. Weak and bread-crazy.
4565 San Mateo NE
Hours: Mon-Fri 7am-7pm, Sat-Sun 9am-6pm
Vibe: Hip and adventurous
Alibi Recommends: Grilled pork sandwich, sausage bun and Not Your Traditional banana nut bread