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Several years ago I was in Santa Cruz, California, and discovered something I hadn't expected to see anywhere this side of Saigon: fast-food banh mi chains. But if you thought about it, the Vietnamese-French fusion sandwich, with its crusty baguette, Asian meats (paté or grilled), and crunchy fresh vegetables, was a perfect candidate for taking off as a more exotic substitute for Subway. Back in Chicago, I expected them to break out beyond the Vietnamese neighborhood on Argyle shortly. Banh mi haven't quite taken off like cronuts, but they have spread out a little—Nhu Lan opened a shop in Lakeview and Banh Mi & Co. has even opened in sleepy Roscoe Village, between the Costello's and Jimmy John's. Another relatively new one to break out of Argyle is a storefront on Lawrence a few doors west of Ashland, CoCo Vietnamese Sandwiches & Pho.
I met a friend there the other day and we each had the pho while splitting a grilled pork banh mi. It's hard to peg banh mi on a scale because, honestly, I've never had a bad one in this city (or anywhere else). Maybe the pork paté here or there slides a little toward mystery meat at times, but the freshness of the crunchy vegetables and the crusty bread has always been high. But I liked the wider range of meat choices at CoCo, and the grilled pork was something more substantial and savory than the usual. A good sandwich I'll come back for.
Then there was the pho. Steve Dolinsky praised it on Instagram a day or two before we went, citing the "8-hour broth," which might give the impression that you were in for a deep, funky bowl, like tonkatsu ramen broth. But that's not what pho is about; there should be some beefiness from the bones, but you want clean flavors that let long-simmered spices shine through, and the pho did have clear, bright notes of clove and star anise. Again, better-quality meat lifted it above the pack—where you often find fatty slices and gnarled hunks of gristle floating in pho, this had pretty slices of nice-looking flank or round, the kind of uniformly attractive slices you find in the meat sections of good Asian markets (which I suspect is where they found theirs, rather than trimming and slicing it themselves).
We weren't the only ones, apparently, who had seen Dolinsky's mention of it; there was quite the foodie crowd there that day. From their conversation it sounded like at least one of the two guys sitting opposite us worked at Moto, and when we mentioned the Franklin Barbecue pop-up, a woman on her way out heard it and said it had already sold out. (We all wondered how much difference it makes if a pitmaster shows up for a pop-up, but his pit necessarily stays home.) If a foodie crowd has found CoCo, good for them; it may not have some of the more unusual items found on Argyle (or Lawrence), but it offers Vietnamese food's two best-known items in an accessible and worthy way.
CoCo Vietnamese Sandwiches & Pho, 1613 W. Lawrence, 773-516-4760, cocovietnamesesandwiches.com.