Everyone has their limits. Some push their bodies to breaking point, others to the brink of mental exhaustion. This particular lunchtime, I too had reached a limit – I couldn’t face the prospect of more dumplings, Chinese food or anything remotely oily. We were also in a rush, which made a sit down meal impossible.
We ended up on Li Yuen Street West in Central, a tiny street packed full with a bric-a-brac market. This is not the type of street that instills you with the confidence that you’ll be eating delicious food (but undoubtedly is a great street to pick up an iPhone cover).
As you weave between the merchants attempting to sell you everything from scarves to children’s clothing, you might be lucky enough to find a small incandescent sign pronouncing to the world “Bánh Mì Kitchen”. The smell of freshly baked bread – that yeasty Pied Piper – streams throughout the air. You will feel as if someone has forcibly grabbed your arm and is pulling you inside to eat a Vietnamese roll.
The inside of the kitchen is tiny, with just enough room for a couple of people to eat at a standing counter against an exposed brick wall. The menu is above your head, offering a very limited selection. I was immediately taken by the char siu (BBQ pork) which was on open display in the glass cabinets next to the cashier.
There was an option to double the meat in the roll for next to nothing and naturally, being a glutton, I supersized my bahn mi. There was also an option to throw in a Vietnamese coffee at basement prices, so I ordered a hot coffee to go (N.B. this is quite sweet).
The roll was made in record time. No sooner had I uttered the words char siu was the bahn mi artisan guy preparing his next masterpiece. The finished product was served in decorative butcher’s paper.
As you unfurl the tightly wrapped roll, the smell of the char siu will send your senses into overdrive (think Vin Diesel in a fast car running late to an important meeting). The first bite discloses a number of key ingredients – cucumber, carrot, coriander, radish and chilli. The bread itself is served warm and is unmistakably freshly baked. The char siu is covered in a sweet marinade, succulent and not overcooked.
There is nothing complex about this dish. It looks just like any other roll. Yet the flavours could not be better balanced. This roll is so good that with each bite you will look at your colleague, and you will both nod approvingly at each other without making any effort at further communication. Even though this lunch was not quite as healthy as I had initially imagined (double pork please!), this is one of the most flavoursome and best-value takeaway lunches you will find in Hong Kong.