Grab-and-go Vietnamese street food made with local flare

Basil, cilantro, lime and beef: for seven years, the famous flavours of South Vietnam have been served at Indochine Banh Mi, a healthy and fast-casual concept shop on South Park Street that specializes in Southeast Asian-styled cuisine. Opened by owner Liz Smith, a lover of Asian style, her 12-seat grab-and-go restaurant takes the influence of Vietnamese street food, like banh mi sandwiches, pho soups and bun rice noodle bowls, and infuses them with locally sourced ingredients, traditional flavour profiles and creative adaptations. Since 2010, Indochine’s menu has become a fresh fusion masterpiece that all started with a sandwich.

Smith fell in love with Vietnamese food in Halifax at the former King Spring Roll on Barrington Street almost 30 years ago. When she moved to Calgary with her family, she got hooked on the banh mi sandwich offered by popular Vietnamese takeout shops. Served on a baguette with mayo (a result of French colonization in Vietnam in the nineteenth century), the sandwich also features pickled daikon, carrot, cucumber, cilantro, bird’s eye chilies and usually a meat pâté.

“When we moved back to Halifax, I started thinking, ‘Gee, I wonder if anyone has a banh mi here, because I really want one,’” Smith laughs. She started experimenting with recipes to achieve the delicate balance of banh mi flavours. She soon opened Indochine. In the last five years, the sandwich, like pho noodle soup, has become incredibly popular in North America.

“We really were ahead of the game, in terms of this style of shop in Halifax, and even in bigger cities like Toronto,” she says. “The banh mi represents all the flavours you would expect to taste in Southeast Asia. You’ve got lemongrass and soy sauce. You have the garlic, the chili heat, the fresh cilantro and pickled vegetables, and then our unique citrus mayo brings it all together.”

For the meat filling, Indochine offers the traditional pork belly, with just enough fat to soak and soften the fresh-made bun, or pork meatballs, sate pork or chicken, pineapple beef, Korean spicy BBQ chicken, and a handful of vegetarian options. With the sandwich locked down, Smith wanted to offer the banh mi’s perfect complement — warm and nutritious pho and noodle soups.

Pho originated in Hanoi in North Vietnam in the 1900s. The plain beef broth and rice noodle soup migrated south, embellished along the way with fresh herbs like basil and mint, and seasoned with sriracha and Chinese hoisin sauce. The southern-style pho at Indochine, and the filling bun rice noodle bowls, are faithful to Vietnamese originals. “They’re hearty but light,” Smith says.

Last year, Smith developed “a true fusion item, the Phoritto,” a sandwich that is pho-on-the-go. “It’s a flour tortilla in the shape of a burrito, with all the elements of pho — sprouts, beef, cilantro and rice, like in a burrito, but we cook the rice in pho broth. And it’s a meal, it’s quite filling.”

Another fusion item, the Korean taco with bulgogi beef, fish or BBQ chicken, was created by Smith and a Korean employee, modelled on the popularity of food truck menus in California.

“I have a background in health education and so all of this food is really healthy,” says Smith. “That’s definitely one more thing to love about it, and that’s why I opened Indochine. When you are busy, and it’s like 8 o’clock at night and you’re hungry, there aren’t many places to get something in five minutes that isn’t a sit-down or crap food, so I wanted to fill that niche.”

Smith says that everything at Indochine is available for takeout and ready in five minutes or less. And like in Southeast Asia, the menu is made fresh daily with mostly local ingredients.

“Our baguettes are made by the Agricola Street Brasserie, we get our pâté from Ratinaud, we sell Propeller soft drinks, our pork is local, we use Acadiana tofu and eggs, and in the summer we get vegetables from Hutton Farms,” she says. “We try to source locally as much as we can.”

While she anticipates construction on South Park for the next two years, Smith is excited to set up outdoor seating for the summer. Customers can relax with a banh mi and a bubble tea — made specially with real fresh fruit — take a walk with a taco, or try the vegetarian and vegan variations.

“This food really makes you feel good,” says Smith. “That’s always been important to me. Fresh, healthy, filling and flavourful. You’re going to feel full but not too full; it’s the perfect thing to go.”