The bottle racks and stainless-steel WineStation dispensers stand to the right when you enter Caphe Banh Mi. You can’t miss them. They’ll practically be panting on you, like drunks in a crowded subway, as you inevitably wait for a table in this cozy, neighborhood hideaway in Old Town Alexandria.
If you’re forced to wait long enough, you might even begin to wonder which of these grapes could relate to the high-strung, high-maintenance broth found in the bottom of a typical bowl of pho. The thought crossed my mind as I huddled next to the bottles one evening, hoping no one would open the door and allow the winter air to blast-chill the tiny dining room.
When I finally sat down, I asked the waiter for a wine recommendation to pair with my pho. His face went tight. He shook his head repeatedly, half-embarrassed, until he formed the words he didn’t want to speak: He doesn’t drink. I opted for a 2013 Burgundy from Meiomi, a California glad-hander with the ingratiating flavors of black cherry and vanilla. The pho didn’t want anything to do with it.
The soup itself was that rare bowl that requires no doctoring with tabletop condiments. The broth was copper colored, clarified but not completely clear. It had a tea-like clarity with a flavor profile to match: light, refined, balanced. The star anise, too often the alpha dog of pho, had been commanded to play nice with the puppies. As such, the spice’s biting, fennel-like aromas were mere component parts, equal to the soup’s caramelized onions, the charred ginger and the sly buttery seduction of the beef broth. To drown this in Sriracha would be like affixing emoticons to American Gothic.
The woman behind this broth is My Huynh, a Vietnamese native whose Alexandria restaurant is a graceful rejoinder to her detractors, who happen to be relatives. Huynh used to help run a handful of Yogiberry frozen yogurt shops with her family, but they had a falling out. “According to my family, I couldn’t do anything on my own,” Huynh says.
Caphe Banh Mi is evidence to the contrary, starting with the arty space itself. One section is reserved for the most tasteful wall map I’ve ever seen in a restaurant: A chalky white wall features the slender, seahorse-shaped outline of Vietnam, along with a series of raised letters, whose shadows spell out the names of major Vietnamese cities. The tabletops look like autumn leaves were trapped in amber. The place gives the average strip-center pho parlor an inferiority complex.
As the name indicates, Caphe also sells meaty banh mi, each served in a paper-lined basket with ringlets of jalapeño neatly stacked outside the baguette so you can control the pepper heat of your sandwich. The classic banh mi — a pig-intensive bite with sliced ham, country pâte, headcheese and cha lua sausage — hits many of the right notes, although the kitchen stiffed me on pickled vegetables. Without its acid tongue, the sandwich was an exercise in unctuousness. The pork shoulder banh mi trades mostly on its grilled meat, the other flavors retreating to the corners of the crusty bread, even the garlicky Vietnamese mayo.
Even though Huynh prides herself on recreating the fresh, fragrant, fishy flavors that she savored in central Vietnam, she’s no straitjacketed purist. Her “sloppy Viet” banh mi is described as a baguette packed with “spicy red curry ground beef,” but don’t let the semi-South Asian language fool you: It’s basically sloppy joe meat spooned into that roll, a sweet-and-spicy tomato mixture that Huynh developed to appease her kids. The sandwich is definitely engineered for a kid’s palate.
While not as obvious as the banh mi for junior high cafeterias, other dishes also appear to acquiesce to Westernized palates. The dipping sauce known as nuoc cham strikes me as sweeter and less fishy at Caphe than at similar outlets at, say, the Eden Center. Yet that’s not necessarily a dealbreaker. The crisp, chewy imperial rolls pack plenty of flavor — crab, shrimp, pork, wood-ear mushrooms — without demanding the intoxicating umami punch of fish sauce. The same holds true for the charbroiled catfish that lounges atop vermicelli noodles: The fillet, prepared with turmeric and dill, actually tastes better without nuoc cham. Its texture is less flaccid, too.
Of course, just when I thought I had sized up Caphe, the place would upend my expectations. Like the evening I ordered a vermicelli bowl paired with slices of grilled pork, crushed peanuts, mint, pickled daikon and big blocks of fried imperial roll. This time, the accompanying nuoc cham smelled as if a million little anchovies had died for the cause, their pungent juices supplying that rotting wave of deliciousness that ties together the best Vietnamese food.
If I had zeroed in on my favorite dishes at Caphe — the pho, the catfish and pork vermicelli bowls, the filet mignon salad with its fresh, elevating notes of mint — I was still no closer to finding a wine to pair with the house noodle soup. One night, I selected a 2012 sauvignon blanc from Chimney Rock Winery in Napa Valley, a vintage that balanced its sweet pear nectar with a mild acidity. Ugh. The wine and pho just eyed each other suspiciously the entire meal.
But then my friend proceeded to madly customize her bowl, like some Dr. Phokenstein. She squeezed an entire wedge of lime into the broth, followed by another wedge and another. She also dribbled in a few dots of Sriracha. I slurped her concoction, then sipped my wine. The sauvignon blanc had suddenly found a friend, one acid seeking out another.
Later, on the phone with Huynh, I related my troubles finding a decent wine to match with her noodle soup. She wasted no words: “It doesn’t work so well with pho.”
407 Cameron St., Alexandria. 703-549-0800. caphebanhmi.com.
Hours: Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Nearest Metro: King Street, with a 0.9-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Starters, salads and banh mi,
$6- $12; pho and entrees, $9-$13.