|Empty cart:The restaurant is mainly a delivery service, so the cheery orange room is often deserted.
by Elisabeth Rosen
For any sandwich to make it in Viet Nam, it must measure up to the banh mi.
At The Cart, a cheerful shop with two locations in the capital, the owners have made a truce with the iconic sandwich by adopting its battle strategy. Like the banh mi, The Cart's best offerings smash together contrasting flavours and textures drawn from both Western and Vietnamese pantries.
Founded by Martin Satchell, chef trainer at KOTO, and former restaurant and bar manager Nguyen Hoang Loan, the restaurant serves several Vietnamese-inflected sandwiches. No. 4, otherwise known as Hang Bong Street (VND65,000), feels like an American housewife's rendition of the street staple banh mi doner kebab. To make the sandwich, a crusty baguette is split in half, spread with a light glaze of mayonnaise and layered with sliced roast pork and crunchy celery and green apple. I'd never associated the main artery of the Old Quarter with pork or celery, but after trying this refreshing combination, I may not be able to drive down the street without wishing I had one of these in hand.
Of course, you'll find Western classics – BLT, falafel, chicken breast. But the fusion sandwiches are by far the most interesting. Ly Quoc Su Street (VND65,000) bears the most explicit resemblance to a banh mi, with chicken liver paste and pickled vegetables. Cha Ca Street (VND65,000) offers a novel interpretation of the Ha Noi specialty. (It's also the only sandwich that appears to have anything to do with its name). In traditional cha ca, you pan-fry white fish at your table along with turmeric and heaps of dill. The sandwich version trades those chunks of fish for tuna spread and replaces the herbs with a more substantial dill-sprinkled frittata.
Before expanding into a pie empire, The Cart was simply a cart. Parked at the Ha Noi branch of RMIT International University, an Australian educational institution, it demonstrated the owners' talent for strategic placement. The first Cart shop opened in Hai Ba Trung Street, near Vincom Towers and the office workers of Hoan Kiem. It later moved to the tourist-filled stretch of Au Trieu near St. Joseph's Cathedral.
After Satchell's passing in 2009, the business continued to expand. In 2011 Loan opened the Nghi Tam branch, in the heart of expat neighbourhood Tay Ho. A few months ago, the Au Trieu Cart rolled across the alley to Tho Xuong.
Since The Cart's origins, the menu has extended far beyond the simple pie. This is a good thing, as the pies themselves will not sway converts. Although British friends raved about the chicken and mushroom pie (VND70,000), I wasn't convinced. Even buttery ripples of near-perfect pastry could not redeem the oregano-laced filling, which reminded me of canned chicken soup: comforting on first bite, but increasingly one-dimensional as one progressed further.
|Breading grounds: The sandwiches draw on both Western and Vietnamese influences ...
|... while the pies offer comfort to hungry Anglophiles. - VNS Photos Elisabeth Rosen
The pies are re-heated via microwave – a technology perhaps responsible for the fact that the chicken inside has the texture and flavor of microwaved Thanksgiving leftovers. After that holiday, however, leftovers are saved by generous dollops of zesty cranberry sauce. I wished that my pie had such an element of contrast.
Luckily, the sense of contrast missing from the pies can be found in the sandwiches – and in the blended juices (VND45,000), like the "super skin", a ginger-cucumber hybrid that tastes like a cool, frothy salad, or one day's special of "detox juice", in which watermelon and ginger strike a perfect balance. You can also customise your own blend of fruit.
The baked goods are also worth a try. The apple muffin (VND20,000) is close to the ideal version of such a pastry: so sugary it's almost a cupcake, with a light crumb. It's the kind of thing you grab on the spur of the moment, before your rationality convinces you otherwise.
The Cart seems to be primarily a delivery service. The cheerful orange shop in the Old Quarter is usually deserted during lunchtime, although the kitchen staff appears constantly busy preparing orders for delivery. This gives the place a slightly gloomy vibe – or makes it ideal for a quiet lunch on the days you want a sidewalk banh mi without the crowded sidewalk that comes with it. - VNS
Address: 10 Tho Xuong; House 88 Lane 1 Au Co
Tel: 0439382513; 0437186967
Price Range: VND60,000 - 160,000
Comment: Vietnamese-inflected baked goods and sandwiches. Dishes to try: No. 4 (Hang Bong St), Detox Juice, daily muffin