Caphe Banh Mi

$$$$ ($14 and under)
Caphe Banh Mi photo

Editorial Review

Vietnam on the walls, not so much on the plates

By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Yogurt has been good to the family of My "Mimi" Huynh, whose clan owns seven area Yogiberry shops. But "I wanted to do something else," and on her own, says the Saigon-born entrepreneur.

In November of last year, Huynh turned the former Pita House into Caphe Banh Mi. The Alexandria outpost was originally intended as a place just to buy coffee and Vietnamese sandwiches (banh mi) but evolved into a 49-seat restaurant with a more extensive menu.

Huynh has a knack for decorating small spaces. She commissioned an artist friend to paint scenes of her homeland, and the restaurateur took it upon herself to dress up one entire wall with a three-dimensional map of Vietnam with raised letters designating the major cities.

Caphe Banh Mi is a handsome place to eat Vietnamese food. It is not, however, one of the region's better sources for the cuisine.

Summer rolls are packed with shrimp, vermicelli and lettuce but not much flavor. Pho comes with a minimal amount of the shaved beef we request, and its demure broth requires every accompanying enhancer - lime, jalapeno, Thai basil - to inject more spirit into the bowl. As for the banh mi, the bread lacks the expected crackle when you bite into it, and the catfish version is more pickled vegetable than anything else.

Huynh, who is also the primary cook, has applied for a beer-and-wine license. Until it's approved, there's a biting ginger soda to wash back the highlight of my recent dinner: chicken marinated in garlic, lemon grass, soy sauce and more, then grilled and served over a bed of soft white vermicelli.

Dessert includes the untraditional but expected: frozen yogurt, of course.