A side benefit of French colonialism in the Gate City

by Amy Kingsley

French colonialism in Vietnam ended disastrously, with 30 years of bitter struggle for independence and millions of lives lost. But if there is a silver lining to such tragedy, it is the delectable dish I’m holding in my hands: baguette stuffed with roast pork, pickled carrot, radish, paté, cilantro and jalapeño for $2.50.

The name of this popular Vietnamese street food is Bahn Mi, and it is the product of an otherwise unhappy cultural marriage. The French colonized Vietnam in the 1880s, bringing with them both their religion and delicious bread. The foodstuffs of the European interlopers eventually mingled with native provisions, al a Banh Mi, which can be stuffed with roast pork, pork roll, ham, chicken or other fillings.

Greensboro is home to a sizable population of Southeast Asian immigrants, several of whom own local ethnic groceries and restaurants. One of those is Pakse Café, a hole-in-the-wall sandwich joint nestled in a Florida Street strip mall between an evangelical church for Hispanics and an electronics store for displaced Southeast Asians.

It is a no nonsense set-up idea for the simple fare on the menu. In addition to the cheap sandwiches, Pakse Café also sells the strong, chicory coffee you can mix with condensed milk and enjoy over a glass of ice. Seekers of boba tea, the sweet milky concoction adorned with ‘“Bubbles’” of tapioca, can also find a handful of varieties here.

From the looks of it, the owners of Pakse Café never redecorated when they took over the humble sliver of real estate. The wallpaper still sports a country theme, with ducks and baskets in pastel colors. A whistling stuffed monkey greets each customer that walks in the door.

Besides that, nothing about the joint, which is described in its own sign as a purveyor of Vietnamese and Laotian sandwiches, is Americanized. You choose your sandwich, steam bun or spring roll from numbered listings on a short menu.

On the Friday I walk in, a group in the back is eating food from round straw containers and watching Fox News. A couple of other customers are whiling away the time on video poker machines.

Beneath the glass countertop where you place your order, a collection of Asian faces smile up at you from glossy CD inserts. There are recordings by Asian artists unknown to the American mainstream and a handful of karaoke discs.

I order sandwiches three and five ‘— that would be the roast pork and chicken. I had eyed the pork roll, a $2 sandwich, before making my decision, but decided to ante up for the luxury options.

As the petite woman behind the counter assembles this afternoon’s late lunch, I take a peek in the cooler behind me. A number of coconut-flavored sodas tempt alongside the mysterious pennywort drink and a handful of brightly colored gelatin products. Cokes, Dr. Peppers and Yoo Hoos can also be had.

My sandwiches are wrapped and handed to me across the counter in exchange for a grand total of $5.35. This, in a city where Pabst Blue Ribbon has largely appreciated to $3 a bottle, might be the best lunch deal in town.

My boyfriend and I split the two sandwiches and a couple of desserts picked up from Spring Garden Bakery with the leftover cash. Although the chicken is good, the roast pork always steals the Banh Mi show.

The meat is red, flavorful and tender, slathered with a healthy dose of paté and the crunchy vegetable combo. The baguette is fresh with a crispy crust and chewy texture.

The marriage of heavy French food with the spicy, fresh tastes of Asia might seem like a difficult-to-execute fusion concept for the deep pocketed. Few of those types ever venture inside the walls of this shop. Every time I come by Pakse Café, which is just around the corner from my house, the place is filled with Asians conversing at tables.

In a city grown increasingly diverse, places like Pakse Café serve a dual function. They fill a culinary void for people far from the land they once called home. In addition, they provide an opportunity for the curious foodie to sample authentic cuisine without having to leave home.

Maybe next time this inquisitive (and cheap) epicurean will reach even further beyond my comfort zone and try that gelatin dessert ‘— the green one that looks like worms. If it’s anything like the sandwiches, it’ll be delicious.

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