When I tell people I write a feature about five-dollar lunches, a dining suggestion I often get—one that never ceases to be funny—is the five-dollar footlong at Subway. (I don't have anything against Subway. In fact, I think it might actually take some effort on their part to create meat products that taste like nothing.)
But I took a cue from the tongue-in-cheek suggestion. I sought out subs that are cheap and also taste like things, which made me think Vietnamese banh mi. And then thoughts of banh mi eventually led me to Nhu Lan Bakery on Lawrence. Not a great story, but one with a happy ending.
I should admit that I'm a relative banh mi neophyte, which I'm sure contributed to the awe by which I was struck upon discovering how goddamn cheap these sandwiches are. The most expensive banh mi on Nhu Lan's menu is the sugarcane shrimp and pork at $4.25. Most of the others are $3.50, and a few are as cheap as $2.95, if you're into headcheese (I am not, but I'm working on it). And banh mi-ophyte (sorry) or not, I can assume that like any other sub, the quality of the bread is as important as the quality of what's inside it.
If I didn't have lots of other things to do, I would write poems about Nhu Lan's bread.
Tell us a little about how your bread is made, Nhu Lan website . . .
The homemade dough is proofed on site, then scored with a knife to give each loaf that trademark split down the middle. Each giant [baking] rack holds 450 small loaves and they are placed into giant custom ovens all at once, set onto a track across the top of the oven. Once inside, they bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, constantly spinning on the giant racks to aerate and bake each loaf evenly.
Suffice it to say, this is a process that's working very well for them. The crusty exterior is baked to golden-brown perfection, and the insides are ethereal, but with a perfect amount of chew. We started with a pint of their Vietnamese beef stew, served with a baguette ($5.50). The only utensil that came with the stew was a tiny, awful, plastic spork, which we used only to transport chunks of the tender stew beef to bits of the bread. The spicy, lemongrassy broth had a sinful chile oil floater, and was completely sopped up in minutes. It would make a great meal for one.
And then there were the sandwiches. If I didn't have an aversion to headcheese, I would've tried the "original" sandwich since it's the original and all, but instead I got the Chinese-style pork. The pork itself was fine—slightly overcooked and red-rinded like it's served in so many Chinese restaurants—but tasted great when bites included the toppings: sweet, pickled daikon, fresh cucumber spears, and lots of cilantro. The flavors are great together, mostly because they remain so singular, if that makes sense.
I usually think faux meats are a sad stand-in for the real thing, but both of us preferred the ginger tofu sandwich to the pork, which was a fun surprise. Calling it "tofu" is misleading in that the sandwich's filling is processed soy made into a thinly sliced, meat substitute, not just slippery blocks of unadulterated curd. It had a great texture, a nice, mild flavor, and wasn't oversalted to make up for the fact that it's not pork or beef or another genuine animal article.
In another cooler by the entrance are several varieties of prepackaged spring rolls that all looked amazing and were gigantic. A tray of three shrimp rolls was just $5.50.
Probably the most likely reason I'll return: their baguettes are for sale for fifty cents each all day.
Nhu Lan's Bakery, 2612 W. Lawrence, 773-878-9898.