During the lunch hour on a recent weekday, I stopped in between rain storms to Banh Mi Station, the spot that opened recently in West Dallas’ Sylvan Thirty (1818 Sylvan Ave.). I was curious about all the usual things. Were the banh mi made in any way according to tradition? Yes, and no. Are the bao that are also served here fluffy? They are.
Most importantly, could I bring back a smattering of things to the office that we could spread out on our desks at work and make our colleagues jealous? It felt like a picnic.
Owner Kevin Vivorakij opened the funky, eclectic, healthy-bowl-and-juice-leaning Bowllery in Denton, but when that lease ended in 2017, he canvassed the area for a new spot for a novel endeavor. “I looked up this space and how small it was and the kitchen not able to do a lot of things. So in my mind [it had to be] more fast-casual dining. Like fusion sandwiches. In my mind, the Asian sandwiches. The banh mi would be a nice fit,” he says.
Yes, banh mi are distinctively Vietnamese. But Vivorakij isn’t. Born in Thailand, he grew up in Hong Kong with parents from Shanghai, speaking Mandarin and Cantonese. He is also vegan. So things would not be straightforward; fusion is in his wheelhouse. But his approach is thoughtful.
Duck confit banh mi? Why yes, of course. Also banh mi stuffed with lemongrass chicken; smoked pulled pork; coconut curry brisket; Chinese five-spice pork belly that melds fatty deliciousness and sultry flavor in just the right way; and two vegan options that involve buffalo “un-chicken” and jackfruit. (Though I found the jackfruit “crab cakes” with vegan tartar sauce and a structure like hash brown to be crispy, but oily.)
Lest you think he’s playing fast and loose with tradition, there are crisp, fluffy baguettes stacked as they are at places like Quoc Bao Bakery in Garland.
They’ve also gotten into the bao game. You might have wandered down the fusion bao path when the fast-casual R&B noodle and bao shop opened last year in the Statler hotel, where you can order bao filled with edamame falalel; American cheese and onion jam; J pork belly and miso; hot fried chicken with mala spice; soft-shell crab; or tofu with carrot, daikon, and hoisin. They’re going for a retro cross-section. At Banh Mi Station, the aim seems less to dazzle with fusion-y mélanges and more to provide vegan alternatives. Sweet ‘n’ chile tofu was bland, deep-fried into a rectangular puck. The un-chicken soy cutlet has a texture like a chicken strip. Nothing topped the Chinese five-spice pork belly, which transports you in just one bite. On the other hand, those pillowy buns are phenomenal.
The red curry mac and cheese might be my new secret indulgence: elbow macaroni laced with the warm, comforting and complex lull of Thai red curry paste. Kale salad with red cabbage and grated carrot is a fresh accompaniment. When you order for take-away, they come in tiny to-go containers.
For non-dairy sensibilities, there is vegan matcha and blueberry sorbet soft-serve alongside traditional soft-serve in Vietnamese iced coffee flavor or black charcoal.
But I’m also a traditionalist. Which is why I was particularly curious to see about the most classic banh mi option of pâté and cold-cuts. (When I see you can add an egg or pâté, it convinces me they get the basics. I breathe a sigh of relief.)
The house makes its own pâté, which is layered with slices of black forest ham and two fried eggs. Topped with pickled daikon and carrot, cucumber and cilantro, and garlic aioli for umami notes and creaminess, it’s perfectly fresh and lovely.
A sandwich board tells you about breakfast and brunch that involve scrambled tofu, vegan sausage, beet-carrot-apple-celery juice. But I’ll be back for the classic ham and egg banh mi, which I’ll eat, perched at the simple tables, looking out at the leafy branches you see through stately windows, imagining another wrapped-in-paper-tied-with-string picnic.