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December 7, 2012 (CHICAGO) --
Lotus Cafe owner Kim Dao keeps her menu compact and authentic, with Vietnamese classics like banh mi, a sandwich, and goi cuon, fresh spring rolls.
The classic Vietnamese sandwich banh mi has its roots in France -- with its bread, but the fillings are Asian.
Located on UIC's campus, Lotus Restaurant's banh mi is as good as any found in Uptown. The UIC marketplace caters to students with inexpensive and relatively quick food. Both bases covered at the new Lotus Cafe. Hidden on the sandwich menu - which has plenty of tempting options - is one of the best Vietnamese spring rolls in Chicago.
There aren't a ton of great ethnic restaurants in the University Village Marketplace on UIC's campus, but Lotus is a game-changer. Kim Dao is a recent graduate of UIC, and saw an opportunity in the area for a Vietnamese staple
"Just a few things but we want to make it the best. Compact menu and authentic," said Dao, Lotus' co-owner.
They focus on banh mi, the sandwich that is to Vietnam, what an Italian beef is to Chicago. They start with Biondillo bread, tearing out just a little bit of the inside, to ensure a good ratio of filling-to-starch. They then lightly toast them. While the bread is toasting, fillings are cooked; in the case of the "Belly Classic" - which features homemade pork terrine, head cheese and sausage, some elements are cooked.
"I think what set us aside is that we cook the meat to order and I think that give it a nice flavor, more fresh," she said.
Then it's time for toppings, like crunchy, vibrant pickled daikon radish flecked with shredded carrots, a dash of seasoned soy sauce plus fresh strips of cucumber, a few sliced jalapeños and long sprigs of fresh cilantro.
Another sandwich close to Dao's heart is the Sunny Side Beef, which really started out as a childhood snack.
"For sunny side beef, it's actually a dish that I eat at home, with my parents on rice. And then they add fries to it with the beef, and I always like eggs so I put that on top; it's a nice combination," said Dao.
It's not all sandwiches here. A few salads round out the menu, including a vegan one, featuring shredded papaya, crispy rice cakes, carrots and cilantro.
"The vegan papaya salad is a popular dish in Vietnam and I used to eat it when I was a kid," she said.
The biggest surprise comes in the form of the goi cuon, or fresh spring rolls. Plump shrimp and boiled vermicelli noodles are wrapped up in pliable rice paper wrappers with crispy shallots and bits of mint. A mild, pineapple and peanut dipping sauce is also remarkable.
"We roll it to order, instead of pre-package it and leave in the fridge. So that way it's more fresh," said Dao.
You can certainly take the sandwiches to go, but i would recommend eating them in the cafe, since the bread is toasted and the fillings are cooked-to-order, they'll taste better the sooner they're consumed.
Lotus Cafe & Banh Mi Sandwiches
719 W. Maxwell St.
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Worth a trip: Banh mi at Lotus Cafe
719 W. Maxwell St. 312-733-7595
How many civil engineers does it take to build a great Vietnamese sandwich? Judging by the excellent banh mi served at Lotus Cafe in University Village, the answer is at least one.
It also apparently takes a biologist, too. While earning their degrees at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Kim Dao (a biologist/nutritionist) and Dao Nguyen (the civil engineer), who now are married, felt there weren't a lot of great cheap and fresh food options available near the school. "After we graduated, we didn't know what to do. The job market was just OK. We had a hard time as students finding food in the area, so after a couple months we said, 'Hey, let's open a restaurant,'" Dao said.
Though Dao and Nguyen were inspired to open a restaurant serving modern versions of the Vietnamese cuisine they grew up with, they had no restaurant experience. "We loved to eat, so we thought we could do this," Dao said. "But, it turned out to be much harder than we expected." What they didn't know, they tried to make up for by traveling and eating and developing menus from the flavors that inspired them along the way. Dao said recipe development took more than a year, and even then, the menu they launched in September 2012 only contained about half the ideas they developed. During that year, Dao also worked at some of the best Vietnamese spots in Chicago, including Nhu Lan, Ba Le and Saigon Sisters, picking up tips along the way.
She studied well. The honey grilled pork banh mi ($6.45) is one of the very best I've had in Chicago. The baguette used at Lotus is crusty and wafts a fresh yeasty perfume with every bite. Because it rivaled the bread served at Nhu Lan, one of my favorite Vietnamese sandwich makers in town, I swore the stuff must have been made in-house. Dao said they had hoped to bake their own bread, but that they didn't have enough experience or room to install the oven system capable to produce the amount of bread they'd need. Instead they get loaves custom-baked by local bakery Biondillo and toast each sandwich roll to order. What gave Lotus the edge over Nhu Lan was the high-quality of the grilled pork shoulder inside the sandwich. It was tender, caramelized and coated in a sweet, bright and garlicky glaze of honey and lemongrass. The jalapeno, cilantro and cucumber salad topping the whole sandwich also was crisp and refreshing.
In addition to the banh mi, the goi cuon (aka spring rolls, $6.95) also are some of the fresher ones I've eaten in the city. The wrappers are crisp, not gummy, and the shrimp inside are plump, butterflied and fresh. The kicker is the killer peanut dipping sauce that's spiked with a bright, sweet pineapple juice.
Dao and Nguyen have plans to one day open up a quick-service Vietnamese noodle shop based on the Chipotle model. Despite their success at Lotus, Dao said she and her husband still have a few tough critics to win over. "When we first started out, both of our parents thought we were wasting our degrees," she said. "I think my mom has come around, but my husband's parents still aren't convinced this is a good idea."
Michael Nagrant is a RedEye special contributor. Reporters visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye.
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