East Meets West at 545 Bánh Mì Café With French-Inspired Vietnamese Sandwiches

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The building blocks of the sandwich are fairly basic and universal: bread, mayo, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and meat.

If this is your regular repertoire, you probably haven't had a bánh mì. And if you consider yourself a sandwich connoisseur, you'll want to try the ones coming from 545° Bánh Mì Café, a new Vietnamese eatery in Davie.

For a long time, Viet dining options have been scarce in South Florida. We have establishments like Hollywood's Pho VI, Saigon City in Lauderdale Lakes, or Basilik Vietnamese Grill in Fort Lauderdale where they serve traditional Vietnamese fare: steaming bowls of pho; fried rice topped with salty, fermented fish; and sticky sweet rice wrapped in banana leaves and stuffed with mung bean paste, pork, and black pepper.

See also: 545 Banh Mi Cafe in Davie (Photos)

However, you'd be hard-pressed to find the country's more colorful culinary import: the bánh mì, Vietnam's French-inspired answer to the submarine sandwich. Now you can find one at 545° Bánh Mì Café, Broward's own Viet-style fast-food fix. The tiny eatery snuggled into the corner of a Davie strip mall presents all the comforts of a Vietnamese market without the trip to Saigon.

Owner Minh Do, whose family left Vietnam when he was just 9 years old to settle in South Florida, is channeling his childhood. For many years, his dream was to build a fast-casual restaurant model that would re-create his earliest memory of Vietnamese comfort food.

"What memory I have left, that is what I wanted to bring here. And I wanted to do it as authentic, as genuine, as possible," says Do. "I want to capture life in Vietnam through food."

See also: January 2015 Restaurant Openings And Closings

A bánh mì shop is, at its core, a Vietnamese deli. Like 545, a good one will have plastic-wrapped packages of meat-stuffed rice noodles, fresh sugar-cane juice, containers of sliced fish over sticky rice, and cup-shaped containers filled with baroquely gelatinous desserts.

But the most important item on the menu is the bánh mì. A tour de force of bread, pickled vegetables, and vibrant sauces, it is the medley of exotic cold cuts that makes the bánh mì a sort of cultish underdog in the sandwich world. Like the Mexican torta, it has already been welcomed into the American canon as a favorite for sandwich lovers.

A few decades ago, the bánh mì made its gastronomic debut in major cities like Los Angeles and New York City -- anywhere the American-Vietnamese community took root. In California's Little Saigon, the bánh mì spawned a sandwich war of sorts, where first-generation Vietnamese advertised low prices ($1 apiece) and special offers like "buy two, get one free," peddling their recession-friendly fare to the masses.

At 545, the idea is the same. The name is a reference to the traditional coal ovens typically heated to 545 degrees and used to bake Vietnamese baguettes, explains Do, who traveled to a rural patch of Vietnam to learn a special technique that yields the sandwiches' most important component.

After all, "bánh mì" translates, roughly, to bread, specifically the country's chewy rendition of a baguette introduced by the French during the country's colonial period. They're shaped into miniature single-serve loafs, differentiated from their Western counterpart by an airy, delicate composition.

At 545, the bread is the most essential part of the daily routine, says Do, a traditional coal oven pumping out racks of fresh-baked baguettes several times a day. A busy lunch rush means the shop will sell hundreds, if not thousands, of bánh mì.

"A good bánh mì sandwich is really a perfect balancing act," says Do. "And one that requires three essential factors."

First, a fresh-baked baguette with a thin, crispy crust offset by a springy, chewy interior is split down the center, slathered with a mellow, house-made aioli, and given a heaping dose of the sweet-and-tangy common denominator of sliced cucumber, a tangy-sweet pickling of daikon radish and carrot, jalapeños, and whole sprigs of cilantro.

Next comes the meat, each sandwich stuffed to epic proportions -- but with what is totally up to you. A small kitchen prepares everything almost daily, prepped by a trio of chefs, including Do's family -- Hai Do and Thang Nguyen. They work the line like maniacs, marinating chicken in tangy lemongrass sauce, grilling or roasting crispy fried pork skin, prepping a from-scratch pâté, and assembling molds of headcheese (a terrine-like meat jelly flavored with onion, black pepper, bay leaf, salt, and vinegar).

The most crucial part of the bánh mì, however, is the price -- a fast fix for less than the cost of a Big Mac. Beware the bánh mì that costs more than $5, says Do.

"This is a quick and easy concept, but you're not getting fast food or fast-food pricing," says Do. "I grew up eating healthy, but here [in the U.S.], eating that way is expensive. I wanted to offer people something fresh and affordable."

Customers -- many of them Vietnamese -- drive from far and wide for a taste of Do's bánh mì. They take advantage of his "buy 10, get the 11th free" offer; they order them to go, a variety of meat, packaged separately from the bread and toppings, enough food to create a week's worth of meals.

Because everything moves so fast, the price is right, especially when it comes to the king of the bánh mì, the dac biet. At 545, it's referred to as "the works," a layering of flavor and texture highlighting the best of Vietnam's cold cuts, from pork roll and barbecue pork to a house-made pâté and flavor-packed headcheese.

Of course, a trip to 545 isn't complete without grabbing one of Do's mung bean milk teas, a kumquat-infused sugar-cane drink, or a mango smoothie to wash it all down. Like the food, everything is made fresh and from whole fruit, with fresh-brewed tea and hand-squeezed juices. They're also available with the appropriate accoutrements: large black beads of tapioca pearls,or translucent grass jelly.

The avocado smoothie is a meal in itself, an entire avocado blended into a thick shake. Like everything else, it's balance that makes it truly exceptional -- neither too rich nor too sweet.

A real taste trip can be found in the glass-front refrigerator near the order counter, positioned perfectly for hunger-induced perusal. You wait in line and eye its contents, a rainbow of che lanh and nuoc ciai khat -- some of Vietnam's most popular desserts. The "che 3 mau" (dessert three ways) is Do's favorite: whole red and white beans layered with a rich mung bean paste, grass jelly, and a heavenly whipped coconut cream for a rich, protein-packed ending.

"The key to Vietnamese cooking is to be able to taste all the ingredients, all the elements, all at once," said Do. "Vietnamese food is known for its balance of the five elements -- the spicy, sour, bitter, salty, and sweet. The bánh mì is the perfect example. It's East meets West in one meal."

545⁰ Bánh Mì Café is located at 6461 Sterling Road, Davie. Hours are 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Sunday. Call 954-581-5048.

Nicole Danna is a food blogger covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on Clean Plate's Instagram.

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