Authentic doesn’t begin to describe Pakse Cafe

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SONY DSCby Eric Ginsburg

Pakse Café is not the kind of place one goes for the ambiance.

The parking lot outside this hole-in-the-wall restaurant at the intersection of Florida Street and Freeman Mill Road in Greensboro is filled with more pieces of litter than cars on any given day, and the blacktop itself is covered in wispy black lines drawn by car tires.

A motion-sensing stuffed monkey greets diners as they walk in the door; fluorescent lights bear down while a TV set blares; bars protect the windows,; an out-of-place Japanese tapestry decks one wall.

The Vietnamese and Laotian restaurant is one of the city’s only banh mi stops, and the closest one to downtown. And despite its relative lack of charm, Pakse delivers on the basics — good food — and cheaply, too.

It’s hard to establish time inside Pakse — the nine potted plants could’ve been stuffed in the front corner yesterday, contributing to a we’re-still-getting-settled vibe, or they might’ve been outgrowing their containers for a decade. Five 12-pack boxes of sodas balanced on each other but slightly askew nearby don’t look dusty, but they have the same purpose of placement as the rest of the décor.

Named for one of the largest cities in Laos, Pakse is cash only, but loose change is almost enough to buy a sandwich here. The menu focuses on banh mi, including ham and barbecue pork or chicken. The recently added chicken-curry sandwich is a good bet, or the multi-meat special combo roll, but the regular pork sandwich may be the most solid choice.

It depends, in part, on one’s aversion or addiction to spice — these sandwiches don’t play around, and even after removing the jalapeno strips, a level of mouth burn is still inevitable. The heat can lead to a runny nose or watery eyes, but be forewarned to avoid touching your face with any fingers that have graced the meal. Not pleasant.

The banh mi craze really hit almost 10 years ago; by 2010 the bearded class brought the French-influenced Vietnamese sandwich into culinary hipster lingo. A few spots stand out in Greensboro, but Winston-Salem residents gripe about the dearth of Vietnamese options altogether.

Most of Greensboro’s Vietnamese restaurants don’t offer banh mi — as far as we know, there are only two banh mi restaurants in the city. The other, Banh Mi Saigon on High Point Road, is bigger both in terms of physical space and menu depth, and white people “discovered” it years ago.

Maybe Pakse’s location across from the Smith Homes housing projects, or between empty storefronts, has kept most of the fair-skinned flannel-rockers at bay. But Yelp users seem to like it. Not that either should be considered the standards of success — instead plenty of people frequent the café without ever amassing enough to create a wait to order or sit.

Vegetarians won’t be thrilled — the veggie sandwich option is basically a normal banh mi with additional pickled carrots to make up for the lack of meat. The fresh spring roll, which is delicious and bulging with veggies under its clear membrane, doesn’t provide any solace — I’m almost positive I tasted pork in there.

Pakse isn’t merely worth visiting because it’s cheap or more centrally located — though both are important selling points — it’s also quick, satisfying and filling. By the third visit, the thrift-store chic art on the walls becomes endearing, an inside joke rather than part of a bizarrely assembled ensemble.

And especially for those who have never tried banh mi, it’s practically mandatory to visit.