Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Farewell Cooking Tour: Bánh Mì School with Cafe TH's Minh Nguyen

The grand teacher was so proud of his pupil's accomplishment

Everyone kept asking me if there were places I had to visit one last time before leaving. What was I going to miss the most? The only place that came to mind (and that I visited at least twice a week this last month) was the char-grilled Vietnamese wonderland known as Cafe TH.

The story of how everyone falls in love with TH seems to always be the same. A friend brings them along after months of raving about it, and in short time the new TH fan is repeating the cycle and bringing in even more friends to succumb to owner Minh's unparalleled spirit and food (it's quite the grand pyramid scheme).

While I never got my name on a menu item like my TH-sires Trey and Scotty (of Trey Way and Gluttonous Ellis fame), I had a lot of great memories and meals there these past 3 years. Every Thursday, our friends would gather together for one of Minh's unbeatable 4-course prix fixe dinners (which we turned into 5 courses thanks to the Trey Way), but my fondest food memories involve the grand Saturday tradition I used to have when I lived a mere 2 minutes away for a year.

Each Saturday, I would wake up, work out, and travel to TH for the greatest bánh mì known to man, The Heart Throb, and then take the most glorious nap on the couch in front of the TV. This behemoth took everything that made bánh mì great and turbo charged it beyond safe levels. Double char-grilled pork combines with bacon, fried eggs, and the freshest ingredients in the best baguette this side of Paris for a satisfaction your stomach will never forget.

Before I left Houston, I wanted only one thing- to make my own Heart Throb. But in order to do that, I was going to have to learn the art of the bánh mì.

Bánh Mì School

All I was expecting from my bánh mì making request was watching Minh masterfully make sandwiches while telling me what makes them so damned delicious, but he had much greater things in store. I was going to learn about bánh mì by getting in the kitchen and making them myself. First up was watching Minh's padawan Maria assemble 6 sandwiches before I had time to blink. The skill was evident, and I had lofty expectations to meet.

Next up, we traveled to the kitchen where I got to live my dream of cooking like a professional chef. We needed fried eggs and bacon to complete our sandwich, and this hairnet wasn't gonna wear itself. I was a little worried that I overcooked the eggs as the pan was quite hot (and that I would commit some unforgivable health code violation), but the bacon came out perfect.

Minh knew better than to let me play with the majestic fire for the char-grilled pork, but he did let me play with his sharp knives and cut up the greatest food item known to man. It took everything in my power not to just shove it all in my mouth.

Now it was time to survey our ingredients- char-grilled pork, 2 eggs, 2 strips of bacon, French butter (which every sandwich should be lucky enough to be graced with), pickled carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, and jalapenos- all of which were fresh perfection. 

But we were going to need a vessel to transport all this goodness to my mouth, and a toasted French Baguette was just the ticket.

Maria was quick to let me know when I made a mistake. I could tell my uncanny natural abilities had her fearing she would be replaced. Too much pork, not enough carrots, and misplaced cucumbers were quickly corrected.

Exhausted, but relieved after 30 minutes of intense training, it was time to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Thanks to Maria's pointers, it looked so perfect. I almost didn't want to touch it, but since I knew what it was going to taste like, I was willing to destroy this masterpiece.

At last, I got to enjoy that first earth-shattering bite of my Heart Throb. As you can see, my fear of having overcooked the eggs was unwarranted. Not Pictured: me devouring it then laying back in my chair with my stomach hanging out, unable to move and making the other patrons uncomfortable.

Yet again, Minh had found a way to give me another memorable experience at his little oasis of awesome. Thanks so much for the years of good food, great times, and ruining my expectations for every restaurant I visit in the future. I'll be lucky to find another place with half the heart in Charleston.

And now, it's time to get to know the man himself (although the best way is always walking in those welcoming doors).

An Interview with the Prime Minhister of Bánh Mì

Tell us a little about yourself. How did you end up here today?

In short, I’ve always had the entrepreneurial spirit but really had no mastery of any skilled labor. So, when an opportunity knocked where I could work next to where I live, help grow in an area w/ potential, and become self sufficient then I seized it. I went with a ‘gut’ feeling vs. a sensible one.

What's the best part of owning TH?

The best part is definitely greeting & meeting new and regular customers w/ good energy. Connecting w/ ppl some how some way makes my soul more complete.

What's the secret to a good bánh mì? Is it love? I'm betting it's love

It’s the love! hmmm… Quality ingredients made fresh in a timely manner.

What's your favorite bánh mì? Favorite menu item? 

Generally speaking, I really like simple foods. This constantly changes but if I had to stick w/ a tried and true one, I’d say the char-grilled chicken and tofu w/ a hint of kim chi. Wait, that seemed to be complex. Again, my favorite menu item changes day to day, but I’d have to go with the pho. It’s incredibly nutrious and can do wonders for your soul.

How were my bánh mì making skills? 

Your skills were top notch. I’d have to say that you were valedictorian of your class.

Any big plans for the restaurant in the coming year?

I always have plans but how much of it gets accomplished is another. We shall see bc if it happens, I’m sure you will notice.

What does Houston's most eligible restaurateur look for in a mate? (from Kevin and probably every single woman who has ever set foot in TH)

I'm pretty sure this is what heaven looks like
Hmmm…where did you get these questions from?…... other than the typical traits ppl look for, I’d add: empathy, competent, assertiveness, there’s an endless list but I feel like if you know, you know. Some sort of feeling you have and it’s somewhat explainable in a few words but not really.

When will you be expanding to Charleston?

Whenever you and Robin are ready. Gimme the green light.

Anything you'd like to add?

I’d like to say that this anchorman persona is quite impressive and should put your engineering career away. Thx for being a good pal, and I hope that Houston finds you again.

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