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December 7, 2012 10:05:46 AM PST
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.
Dao Nguyen, ’11 ENG, and Ngan “Kim” Dao, ’11 AHS, ’11 LAS, don’t wear wedding rings—“food gets into the crevices,” Dao says. But no one would doubt the strength of their relationship. Together, the parents of two serve up fresh spring rolls and toasted Vietnamese sandwiches to UIC students and staff at Lotus Café and Banh Mi.
The couple opened their University Village café in September 2012, got married in 2013 and launched a second, cafeteria-style location in UIC Student Center West in 2014.
How did you develop your menu?
Nguyen: We combined components of different recipes—you could call it fusion, but most of it is authentic. For example, Sunny Side Beef—in Vietnam, we would keep the meat and onion separated, then dip the bread with the egg; here, we package it differently, in sandwich form, so it’s more convenient.
Dao: In my nutrition classes, we would tweak a recipe to change the texture or flavor. When I test my recipes, I use that process—if you change one ingredient, what happens? It’s like a science project.
To what do you attribute your success?
Nguyen: Sacrifice, hard work and the willingness to adapt quickly. If people don’t like something—even if you know it tastes good—you have to be willing to cut it and not sell it. It’s those things you don’t actually see, like the way we make our radishes. Before, we had to hand-peel and shred 400-500 pounds a week. So we bought a julienne machine and a peeler. That’s cut 15 hours of staff time a week.
How do you work together?
Nguyen: We respect each other’s abilities. I never question her cooking or decisions on new menu items. I’m the one who handles logistical issues, numbers, price structure and inventory.
Dao: It kind of fits into the degrees we pursued.
Nguyen: We always thought we were similar, but with this business, we realized we are so different—in a good way. She knew what I didn’t, and I knew what she didn’t, and it made us stronger.
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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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Healthy and authentic Vietnamese food with a modern twist is the focus at Lotus Café and Banh Mi in University Village. Owners Kim Dao and Dao Nguyen, both graduates of UIC, dreamed up Lotus Café when they noticed there was nothing in the area to satisfy their desire for the unique flavors of Vietnam. Since they opened in 2012 in a bright and airy storefront on the cobblestone portion of Maxwell Street, you, too, can get your fix of toasty banh mi sandwiches, fresh spring rolls, and fruit smoothies.
Vietnamese cuisine gets most of its flavor from fresh vegetables like cucumber and daikon radish as well as seasonings like lemongrass, ginger, and chilies. Banh mi sandwiches, traditionally the comfort food of Vietnam, are made from toasted French baguettes scooped out and filled with meat or fried eggs and crunchy vegetables. Lotus Café‘s banh mi sandwiches keep with that tradition while also offering options for vegan and vegetarian diners.
One of the vegetarian picks, the Veggiecado, is loaded with golden fried tofu, slices of avocado, vermicelli, crisp carrots, daikon, cucumber, jalapenos, and house mayo (order without mayo to make it vegan). Another option is the Mushroom Lemongrass which features a sautéed mushroom, grilled onions, and fragrant lemongrass. Meat eaters can satisfy their appetites with offerings like pork belly, ginger chicken, and beef.
Make sure you complement your banh mi with an order of spring rolls, which are packed with your choice of fried tofu or steamed shrimp, crispy shallots, lettuce, cucumber, carrot, and daikon. All this is wrapped in delicate rice paper and served with a superb pineapple peanut dipping sauce. These spring rolls achieve the perfect balance of flavor and texture, and are great choices to start with or to satisfy those looking for a light, health-conscious meal. Top it off with a hot, sweet Vietnamese coffee or a smoothie in flavors like lychee, mango or avocado.
Free Wi-Fi is available at Lotus Café, and service is quick and friendly, making it a common lunch spot for UIC students and those living in the area. There is ample seating both indoors and out on the patio, but if you don’t have time to eat in, you can order online or via text message for pick-up or delivery.
Lotus Café is located at 719 W. Maxwell St.
By Carrie Laski
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Featured on Today we’d like to introduce you to Dao Nguyen.
So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
Entering our junior year in college, we were left with the dilemma of continuing to follow through with our academic pursuit and journey down a safe albeit mundane path, or adventure into the unknown and vulnerable arena of creating and running our own business. We chose the latter, obviously, but not before completing our degrees, handing it to our parents, and never looking back. In those final two years, while both working and attending class full-time, we spent our nights researching and developing the food menu. Much of the basis of the menu were based on traditional recipes Kim and I grew up on. The challenge was to make it palatable to unfamiliar taste buds, while also retaining the authenticity of the recipes, all in a convenient to eat form.To say we’ve made some mistakes along the way would be an understatement. The entire two years spent on R&D were basically scrapped and improvised within the first week of opening. We simply did not know what we were doing, but we worked tirelessly trying to fix a sinking ship. Every single day, we discussed what were the biggest mistakes, and focused intently on addressing those issues.I truly believe that it was that drive to endlessly improve, tirelessly innovate, and shamelessly admit our faults that led us to where we are today.
Has it been a smooth road?
Running any business is difficult, but owning a restaurant is probably the hardest among them. Although the list can be exhaustive, for us, the biggest challenges were employee management and workflow. We realized early on that regardless of how many customers we serve a day, we could not make money unless we had an efficient workflow. That meant having to constantly streamline our process, review vendors and make purchases accordingly. The right employees will return more than their worth in gold, but the challenge is to find those employees, and harder yet, to figure out how to retain them on a tight profit margin.
So, as you know, we’re impressed with Lotus Cafe & Banh Mi Sandwiches – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
We are a Vietnamese restaurant specializing in delivering healthy cooked to order food, quickly and conveniently. We stand apart not only because of the quality of the food, but the ability to deliver that promise consistently, and with the best customer service possible. Customers come back because we treat them like family, and they know that we’ll always be there for anything they need.Lotus is known for their banh mi sandwiches served on daily baked baguettes, intensely flavorful and unique meats that cannot be found anywhere in the city. There are other banh mi shops, but none that deliver the freshness that Lotus promises.We are most proud of the way Lotus is operated. We have a great work culture, and haven’t lost a full-time employee in years. We treat workers and customers alike, with respect and dignity. We have almost zero food wastage, as our cook to order process prevents any meats from sitting out longer than a few minutes before serving. Efficiency is our addiction, and one day, we hope to achieve that goal.
Let’s touch on your thoughts about our city – what do you like the most and least?
Like most Chicagoans, we like to complain about our city, mostly the high taxes and those darn parking tickets. But one trip to any other place in the US and we start to miss Chicago. The food, the diverse culture, the city skyline, the people; there is no other place like Chicago.
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