Want Boba with That?: Fast and good Vietnamese food at BBC Banh Mi, Boba Tea & Crêperie

BBC Banh Mi, Boba Tea & Crêperie

243 North Euclid Avenue; 314-361-7770.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.-Wed., 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat.

BBC Banh Mi, Boba Tea & Crêperie
Honeydew boba tea....$2.75
"Special" banh mi $4 Spicy curry chicken crêpe $4.95

They are laughing at me. I'm sure of it. Two young women. College students, I think, home for spring break. They are looking at me — not even trying very hard to be furtive about it — and laughing. Am I being paranoid? Maybe. But the young women are definitely looking in my direction, and they are definitely laughing, and I'm the only person sitting on this side of tiny BBC Banh Mi, Boba Tea & Crêperie.

I focus on my honeydew-flavored boba tea. The drink (also known as bubble tea) is mildly sweet and more watery than milky, the taste fairly honeydew-like. The boba — pebble-size tapioca balls — are chewy as promised, but flavorless. I try to avoid them, but the size of my straw, at least three times thicker than a normal one, makes this difficult.

My boba tea is also a mess. It's served in a plastic cup with a sealed plastic lid that you have to puncture with...something. I had no idea, so I took a plastic knife and stabbed a narrow opening in the plastic, spilling the pale green tea onto my table. I'm also having trouble with the straw. It tapers to a point, which I fear will cut my lips.

Suddenly, I have two realizations.

The straw's pointed end is meant to puncture the boba tea's sealed plastic lid. I have the straw inserted backward.

The two young women are laughing at me because I'm an old fart who doesn't know how to drink boba tea.

Which is true. Please cut me some slack, though. BBC Banh Mi, Boba Tea & Crêperie has thrown me for a loop.

Calling BBC a restaurant is a bit of stretch. It's a narrow storefront tucked into the Central West End. There is seating for fewer than twenty diners, and no table service. Given how quickly your food is prepared, you might call it a fast-food joint, but that doesn't seem quite right, either. The closest (though not really close) approximation might be the noodle bars you find in much larger and more ethnically diverse cities.

The staff is young and the music pop, but the vibe isn't especially trendy or hip. (Then again, a man who doesn't know how to drink boba tea is not the best arbiter of cool.) Maybe I should just say BBC is unlike any other restaurant I've encountered in St. Louis. It's a place wholly of the present moment: the globalized, multicultural 21st century.

Case in point: You can order a crêpe with fruit and Nutella, with red bean ice cream or with smoked eel and cheese. (Presumably you can't order a crêpe with all these things, though I didn't ask.) Your crêpe is served as if from a street vendor: folded into a cone and then wrapped in paper. (If you've ever visited an authentic British chip shop, your nostalgia sensor will flicker.) Like an ice-cream cone, the crêpe cone dribbles sauce as you approach the end.

Of course, this too I might have been eating incorrectly.

From the selection of savory crêpes, I tried the "Spicy Curry Chicken": cubed chicken, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, onion, ginger and basil in a thick, tawny curry sauce. The crêpe was excellent, thin and a lovely golden brown. The curry sauce had a very blunt flavor of curry powder and was spicy, as promised. It was a satisfying snack, but not a filling meal.

Better, in this regard, are BBC's banh mi. These sandwiches were fusion food before the term was coined, a legacy of the French colonial presence in Vietnam. As with any kind of sandwich, the number of variations is limitless. Ba Le, a banh mi restaurant on South Kingshighway, offers at least a dozen. Most Vietnamese restaurants will have least one banh mi on the menu.

BBC offers five (including one filled with disturbingly named "veggie ham"), but the "Special" is more or less the essential banh mi: thinly sliced ham, pork pâté and head cheese topped with cucumber, carrot, jalapeño, cilantro and pickled daikon inside a demi-baguette. The sandwich is packed with flavor: the savory, funky pork, the bright, even sweet vegetables and the searing slices of jalapeño. Another pleasure of banh mi is the contrast in textures between the crusty bread, smooth meat and crisp vegetables. Here BBC's "Special" falters slightly: The bread was soggy at both ends.

The other banh mi are good, though not as complex as the "Special." The confusingly named "Grilled BBQ Pork" has the pinkish hue of smoked meat but a straightforward porky flavor, the meat on the fatty side. A banh mi with lamb brought meat much like gyro meat — and, in fact, there is a lamb gyro on the menu.

I was excited to see ramen noodles included on the menu. Bear with me. Yes, ramen reminds most of us of college, our first apartment and other misadventures of young adulthood. One summer in grad school to support myself between stipend checks — rather than, you know, get a job — I lived almost exclusively on eight-for-$1 packs of ramen. If I wanted a snack rather than a hot meal, I would break the dry noodles into bits and then shake the seasoning pouch over them.

(Note to impoverished college readers: Chile-flavored ramen work best for this.)

True ramen, as opposed to the instant variety, has a long and proud tradition in Japanese cuisine. As I mentioned, U.S. cities with more ethnically diverse populations often have numerous noodle bars, and aficionados will debate which has the best or the spiciest or the most authentic ramen. While I suspected otherwise, I let myself imagine that BBC had a bubbling pot of pork broth in its kitchen.

Instead, they served me a bowl of instant ramen. Better than the eight-for-$1 type, with a few fresh vegetables thrown on top for good measure. But, still, instant ramen. I paired the ramen with an order of shrimp shu mai. The light dumplings didn't hold together very well, and their flavor was rather bland. Still, as this entire meal set me back just over $5 (tax included), I wasn't especially disappointed. And if, say, I stumbled out of a Central West End bar after a few drinks and needed something to eat now, a bowl of ramen or a banh mi sandwich would be just right.

Consider BBC a 21st-century snack bar. Would I seek it out of its own accord? Maybe not. But in a city where convenience food so often means the same old fast food or deli sandwich, it's exciting to have at least one place that is, even in a very small measure, looking to the future.

I'll see you there as soon as I figure out how to drink my boba tea.

For daily dining updates, visit Ian's blog, Gut Check.
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