Sandwich City: Baguette House

Baguette House & Cafe
10901 N. Lamar Blvd. #C312 in the Chinatown Center. 512-837-9100.
Hours: 9am-7pm daily.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 05.28.13
Pâté plays the same role in a Vietnamese banh mi that frijoles play in a Mexican torta, the same as tapenade in a muffaletta, the same as Whiz in a cheesesteak, the same as jewelry in Tolkien’s Middle Earth: One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. The pâté is where the power’s at, a rush of garlic, holding everything together in an iron glove.
At the Baguette House in the pan-Asian wonderland that is the Chinatown Center on North Lamar, pâté is the cornerstone of the banh mi menu, where eight out of 10 choices are less than $4 for a 10-inch sandwich. Each is programmed with the basics of the banh mi: matchstick carrots and daikon, pickled to deliver sweet, sour and crunch. And long-stemmed cilantro, a bouquet of love or hate, depending on where you hold this divisive weed. Neat staves of cucumber and medallions of fresh jalapeño play good cop-bad cop with cool and hot.
And finally there’s that baguette, the make-or-break bookend of any respectable banh mi. They bet the House on baguettes here, and they’re sturdy outside, comfortable inside like a good home should be. Whether you love it or list it depends on the guests you invite. At the Baguette House, those guests include all manner of swine: pâté, pork meatloaf, pork meatballs, grilled pork, headcheese and a rustic French-style ham called jambon.
At $3.95, the No. 1 House Special puts four of those porky houseguests to work: meatloaf, headcheese, jambon and pâté. Before you get too excited, “pork meatloaf” is sliced thin like the luncheon loaf of misspent youth, a kind of connective membrane for introductory sandwich anatomy, a rubbery filler with a wetsuit sheen. The headcheese is a tasteless matrix of alien gristle, while the jambon is a charmingly irregular tapestry of pepper and smoke.
In theory, a banh mi with just pâté and pork meatloaf (No. 3, $3.45) should amplify the power of the pâté, especially with extra meat ($1.50) to even out the shop’s starchy imbalance of bread-to-meat. But the “extra” just means more of that pale-bellied luncheon loaf, like getting an extra eyeful of belly fat at the beach.
Where the rubbery pork loaf fails, the pork meatballs succeed. They’re more like loose-grind sausage or a meatloaf, and as such they give the No. 7 banh mi ($3.50) a sort of Mid-America mass appeal, with medium black pepper heat, a midline ratio of ground fat and lean and a half-measure of sweetness. One sausage hoagie coming up, Mr. Kowalski.
Grilled pork in the No. 6 banh mi ($3.75) is preternatural in pink like so many Vietnamese examples of the art. But the pink is painted on for show here, because there’s no grilled flavor across the stiff slices, no charred edges of interest. Just lipsticked pig playing a part.
Two of the best things at the Baguette House aren’t sandwiches at all, but rather branches from the Vietnamese national tree, a tree with rootstock from France and China. First, a pâté chaud crimps the edges of flaky, varnished pastry around a golden dome that covers a hemisphere of peppered pork as fatty and firm as cased sausage. At $1.62, it’s as cheap as a fast-food biscuit and dramatically more satisfying. More expensive at $5.25 but just as satisfying is a trio of translucent spring rolls filled with lettuce, cucumber, carrot, daikon, vermicelli and — here’s the important part — layers of tender grilled beef with the robust character of street food.
Street food? With its colorful menu panels, its earthy green and red decor, the crossfire of light from tall windows and a staff schooled in friendly efficiency, maybe “fast food” is a more appropriate description. But it’s a better class of fast food.
(TOP: Banh mi sandwiches from the Baguette House. From left: grilled pork, pork meatball, a No. 3 pork meatloaf and pâté with extra meat and a No. 1 House Special with pork meatloaf, jambon, headcheese and pâté. INSET (clockwise from top left): The ordering counter; grilled beef spring rolls; the shop’s corner storefront at the Chinatown Center; pâté chaud filled with ground pork. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)