Bon Banh Mi
By Barry Waldman
I picked up my then-85-year-old father at the Charleston airport around noon and asked if he was hungry.
“Sure,” he said.
“I know just the place,” I grinned.
My dad had visited Charleston before, played the tourist and seen the major sites. This time, I was going to give him the local’s view of the region.
I pulled up on Spring St. downtown and told him he was going to love the place. Taste and smell erode in old age, so I knew he would like a restaurant whose flavors popped.
We walked up to the Vietnamese taco place Bon Banh Mi owned by my friend Jason Sakran (along with partner James Romano), known to friends as Jay-Sack, and now to a whole neighborhood as their city councilman. All that was lost on my dad when he saw the little hole in the wall eatery. He balked at the tiny space – maybe half-a-dozen seats filled with MUSC students in their scrubs.
“Dad, trust me on this: you’ll love this place,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
“Have I ever led you astray before?”
“Yes. Many times”
“That was to get it out of my system. Today, I am doing you a solid. You’re going to eat great food.”
A couple of seats opened up and we looked at the menu, a simple matrix of flavors and wraps. Pick one of seven proteins – items like pâté and ham, five spice tofu or tamarind shrimp – and your container – taco, salad or banh mi baguette. It’s impossible to go wrong unless you’re inattentive when you eat and let a fraction of a morsel slip from the sandwich.
Each arrangement includes cucumber, pickled radish, pickled carrots, cilantro, Thai basil, crispy shallots, and more, with an exotic dressing as the capstone.
This is decidedly not a burger place, a pizza joint, or a country kitchen. It’s not even particularly Charleston, but on that afternoon, indeed on many afternoons, that’s not so much the point. I wanted something that would set my father’s palate singing arias about unexpected flavors, flavors that crash into each other and burst with surprise and joy.
I mean, my father was a New Yorker, all 89 years, 10 months and two weeks of his life. He was an adventurous eater particularly fond of Turkish food. But how many times in his whole long life do you think his tongue experienced the combination of red curry beef and siracha lime cream?
I’m going to say never. At least not until Bon Banh Mi.
He liked the menu’s simplicity and ordered a salad with ginger lemongrass chicken. I went the full banh mi with five spice ground pork. We chatted with the two people behind the counter who were gregarious and enthused about the food they made and the customers who did them the honor of walking in the door, just as they always are. We filled cups from the carafe of cucumber water on the shelf and within two minutes were sitting down for a few moments of ecstasy. I took care of the bill – heck, it was ten bucks each – before my dad even noticed.
“You know what I love about this place?” I asked my dad.
“Yeah, your friend owns it,” he wise-guyed back. He was, after all, a New Yorker. I gave him my best facsimile of an evil eye. “And the food is great,” he added. “It really is.”
“Right: the food is great, it’s healthy, it’s a little exotic, not like eating crocodile and Palmetto bug exotic but just a little different than we normally eat. We can have water – free! – with our meal, which is really the best complement to such flavorful fare, and we can be out of there in 15 minutes if we want. That’s why it’s so popular with the interns and residents at the medical university.”
The conversation ended there because my dad made the very apt judgment that luxuriating in all those taste sensations was a more productive use of his time than listening to his prodigal son blather on.
But the bigger point is that Bon Banh Mi is a fast food joint because it’s fast, not because it’s fast food. In fact, with such a small space, there’s no way to own a freezer big enough to freeze ingredients, so everything is fresh and tastes that way. There’s no guilty eating here; other than a bag of potato chips everything on the menu is health food, or what my dad in his youth – that would be the late 30s and early 40s – would have called food.
Today, of course, there is no sitting inside at Bon Banh Mi. All the food comes takeout, delivery, or outside eating. The staff are wearing gloves and sanitizing relentlessly and the water and condiments are now by request to prevent cross-contamination.
Bon Banh Mi now has a second location on Ben Sawyer Blvd. just a bit past Coleman Blvd. in Mt. Pleasant. It’s all the same yumminess as downtown except, c’mon, just not quite as cool.