The classic Vietnamese sandwich banh mi has its roots in France -- with its bread, but the fillings are Asian.
Located on UIC's campus, Lotus Restaurant's banh mi is as good as any found in Uptown. The UIC marketplace caters to students with inexpensive and relatively quick food. Both bases covered at the new Lotus Cafe. Hidden on the sandwich menu - which has plenty of tempting options - is one of the best Vietnamese spring rolls in Chicago.
There aren't a ton of great ethnic restaurants in the University Village Marketplace on UIC's campus, but Lotus is a game-changer. Kim Dao is a recent graduate of UIC, and saw an opportunity in the area for a Vietnamese staple
"Just a few things but we want to make it the best. Compact menu and authentic," said Dao, Lotus' co-owner.
They focus on banh mi, the sandwich that is to Vietnam, what an Italian beef is to Chicago. They start with Biondillo bread, tearing out just a little bit of the inside, to ensure a good ratio of filling-to-starch. They then lightly toast them. While the bread is toasting, fillings are cooked; in the case of the "Belly Classic" - which features homemade pork terrine, head cheese and sausage, some elements are cooked.
"I think what set us aside is that we cook the meat to order and I think that give it a nice flavor, more fresh," she said.
Then it's time for toppings, like crunchy, vibrant pickled daikon radish flecked with shredded carrots, a dash of seasoned soy sauce plus fresh strips of cucumber, a few sliced jalapeños and long sprigs of fresh cilantro.
Another sandwich close to Dao's heart is the Sunny Side Beef, which really started out as a childhood snack.
"For sunny side beef, it's actually a dish that I eat at home, with my parents on rice. And then they add fries to it with the beef, and I always like eggs so I put that on top; it's a nice combination," said Dao.
It's not all sandwiches here. A few salads round out the menu, including a vegan one, featuring shredded papaya, crispy rice cakes, carrots and cilantro.
"The vegan papaya salad is a popular dish in Vietnam and I used to eat it when I was a kid," she said.
The biggest surprise comes in the form of the goi cuon, or fresh spring rolls. Plump shrimp and boiled vermicelli noodles are wrapped up in pliable rice paper wrappers with crispy shallots and bits of mint. A mild, pineapple and peanut dipping sauce is also remarkable.
"We roll it to order, instead of pre-package it and leave in the fridge. So that way it's more fresh," said Dao.
You can certainly take the sandwiches to go, but i would recommend eating them in the cafe, since the bread is toasted and the fillings are cooked-to-order, they'll taste better the sooner they're consumed.
Lotus Cafe & Banh Mi Sandwiches
719 W. Maxwell St.