In case you weren't familiar, Vietnamese-American, Oakland-raised chef Tu David Phu is one of Oakland's culinary stars. His culinary career started out fairly traditional, attending culinary schools and working in renowned fine dining restaurants. Eventually, he left that world to start his own series of moderately-priced pop-up dinners called An, where he turned his focus toward Vietnamese tasting menus. From there, Phu began to gain all kinds of recognition and accolades, including being named one of the San Francisco Chronicle's Rising Star Chefs of 2017 and competing on Top Chef Season 15.
But as he reflected upon An, Phu realized he wanted to focus on offering food at a more affordable price. "I started doing more stuff in the nonprofit space, especially with inner city youth and incarcerated folks," he said. "Me being a native of Oakland, I wanted to do stuff where Oakland natives and Oakland folks can enjoy the food."
Last Thursday, Phu softly opened BanhMi-Ni, a weekday lunch-only banh mi pop-up at Copper Spoon. At BanhMi-Ni, Phu offers a creative menu of Vietnamese sandwiches with options like shoyu-poached chashu pork, pastrami, ginger-scallion turkey, and hoisin chicken. All come with housemade chicken paté and shredded carrot and daikon — the ingredients that Phu said are essential to a banh mi. For vegetarians, there's also a paté-less sandwich made with Beyond Meat and ginger-scallion sauce. The sandwiches clock in at $9.95 and come with a side of spicy cucumber slaw or banana blossom and cabbage salad. Housemade drinks like lemongrass, ginger, and mint-infused lemonade and Vietnamese cold brew are also available, plus desserts like banana bread pudding and coconut sticky rice.
Asked why he decided to focus on banh mi, Phu replied, "I'm a really big fan of street food. I really enjoy eating with my hands more than eating on a plate and silverware." Plus, Phu said, he identifies with banh mi on a personal level.
"I'm a third-culture baby — I'm a byproduct of being of two different worlds. Banh mi is definitely a reflection of me," he said. "Banh mi, like myself, is a third-culture product as well, too. You have the French and the Vietnamese, and that comes together and you get banh mi. Without either, you wouldn't have banh mi. I can fold other 'nontraditional, non-authentic' things into that."
One of the biggest departures Phu makes from so-called "traditional" banh mi is with the bread. Rather than using light, crusty banh mi bread, Phu uses a hero roll, which is similar to the bread you'd find on a Mexican torta. "I love banh mi, but I hate all the crumbs that it creates when you eat a banh mi. It kind of gets everywhere," he said.
The bread then gets pressed like a panini, and the sandwich is served warm. That's the origin of BanhMi-Ni's name, which is a portmanteau of banh mi and panini. Yes, it's a nonconventional banh mi — and that's exactly what Phu is aiming for.
"In this sandwich concept, I wanna throw [out] all the rules and just have a good time — as long as the cultural identity of banh mi is still there," Phu said.
BanhMi-Ni is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. (or sold out) at Copper Spoon at 4031 Broadway in Oakland. For more information, visit EatBanhMiNi.com.