Some sandwiches rise above the rest.
There’s the BLT, po’boys, lobster rolls, Philly cheesesteaks, the classic meatball sub, and the Reuben, an Omaha staple.
It’s well past time to nominate another tasty sandwich to the upper echelons of the sandwich world—the báhn mì.
Bánh mì is the Vietnamese word for bread. In Vietnam, it also means a specific type of sandwich, which is the Vietnamese take on a French baguette and charcuterie. It has a sweet and slightly tangy butter-mayonnaise layered with a pork and liver pate spread, barbecue pork, and cold cuts of pork sausage (cha lua) that’s made by pounding pork until it turns pasty and then mixing it with fish paste and other seasonings, such as garlic and black pepper.
Next comes the fresh cucumber slices, shredded pickled daikon and carrots, fresh cilantro, and thinly sliced jalapeños—all laying on a pillow of Vietnamese baguette, which is airier and softer than a French baguette. It’s sweet. It’s savory. It’s crunchy. It’s soft. It’s hot. It’s cold. It’s sour and, at times, spicy, hitting all the marks of a good culinary experience.
Chloe Tran, owner of The Bánh Mì Shop in Bellevue (and the second location in Aksarben), knows her way around a bánh mì well. She and her staff make almost everything in-house at The Bánh Mì Shop, including the Vietnamese baguettes, which are made fresh daily to ensure the texture and taste are just right.
“The bread is the riskiest part of opening this business because the baguette is the hardest part,” Tran said. “It’s hard to make. It’s very unpredictable…Even to this day, it takes a lot of experience just to get it right.”
It took Tran a few months of trial and error to perfect the bánh mì baguette recipe when she opened her business more than two years ago in November 2017. Tran has a long history of baking, starting around age 10, and is mostly self-taught. She cooked a lot with her family growing up in Vietnam, where most of her family still lives.
And it was her family who came to Tran with the idea of opening a restaurant. Tran had just graduated from Metro with her associate’s degree and was planning on going back to school at the University of Nebraska at Omaha to get her bachelor’s in business administration—so she told them no.
“I thought it was crazy because I was still in school and I could not imagine running a business when I was that young,” she said. “But having dreamed of opening a business for so long, I was afraid the opportunity might not come again for a while.”
In a follow-up email, Tran said her fiancé (then-boyfriend) Aaron Thompson encouraged her to forge ahead. The couple had faced disapproval from friends and family due to their age gap (29 years), and he wanted to see her achieve her dream and be independent before they got married.
“There’s a lot of people that know what her potential is,” Thompson said. “Honestly, this hasn’t even scratched the surface…She makes all kinds of food, and when she gets her hands into something, you’re not disappointed.”
Eventually Tran decided to take the risk. She took a year off school to set up the business. “Thinking back about it, it’s still a pretty crazy idea,” Tran said.
She added that she was fortunate to have enough dedicated staff to cover most shifts and help her manage the business. As any business owner knows, anything can go wrong throughout the day.
“Luckily, my great team would try their best to handle the situation before asking for my help, especially during my class time,” Tran said. There were a few occasions when she had to miss class, but fortunately her business professors were understanding.
Thanks to all the support and understanding, The Bánh Mì Shop is now thriving, having recently opened a second storefront in the Inner Rail Food Hall in Aksarben last fall.
The shop’s menu has close to 10 different bánh mì sandwiches, including the traditional bánh mì with cha lua and Tran’s family pork pate recipe to peppery Vietnamese style shredded chicken and grilled beef patties with sweet hoisin sauce to vegetarian options with crispy fried eggs or grilled tofu with a teriyaki glaze. The most popular menu item is the grilled pork bánh mì that’s marinated in lemongrass and fresh garlic.
“We use pork butt as the main cut, so it has a little fat and a little lean meat,” Tran said. “We marinate and char grill it. It sounds the most appealing out of the menu, especially for new people who’ve never heard of bánh mì before.”
Tran said when she first opened her restaurant, most people had no idea what a bánh mì was. “I think a lot of them came in to try it out of curiosity more than anything else. People were very supportive even when they didn’t really know what to expect in the beginning.”
For Tran, the most rewarding part of opening a restaurant is the opportunity to serve people and promote her culture and cuisine.
“We like to see people being served, especially military going in and out,” she said. “Or people who come for a quick, healthy lunch instead of going for fast food because that’s their only option. It’s really satisfying to see them happy.”
Thompson said the Bellevue community loves and supports Tran. “They just appreciate that old Bellevue, small-town kind of feel that she embraces and continues to promote…That’s the kind of person Chloe is,” he added.
While Americans eat bánh mìs for lunch and dinner, in Vietnam, it’s common to eat them for breakfast or as a snack. In addition to the sandwiches, the shop serves an assortment of bubble milk teas such as strawberry, Thai tea, and taro; green and black teas that come with fresh fruit, jelly, or aloe vera; Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk; and an array of fruit smoothies in flavors of honeydew, lychee, mango, and avocado.
Tran said she wants to grow The Bánh Mì Shop in Bellevue into a fast-casual restaurant and offer more of a dining experience for her customers. Adding more locations might happen down the road, but for now, her goal is to better serve her customers with the restaurants she has.
Cooking is her biggest passion. “At some point, I realized that I can’t really make a career out of anything better than cooking.”
Visit thebanhmis.com for more information.
This article was printed in the March/April 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.