In the early part of his career, Tu David Phu worked at Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen in Berkeley. He worked both front of the house and as a chef at Saul’s, and unsurprisingly, it was there that he came to know and love pastrami. He not only learned how to make pastrami, but to pair it with griddled rye bread, swiss cheese and sauerkraut. Still, the Vietnamese-American chef couldn’t help but wonder how slices of the salty, smoky beef would taste paired with vinegar-pickled carrots and daikon and a smear of creamy pâté in a banh mi.
Well over a decade later, for his new pop-up, BanhMi-Ni at Copper Spoon Kitchen & Cocktails in Oakland, Phu finally has the opportunity to give the pastrami banh mi a try.
“It was the first thing I thought about doing,” he said. “Sometimes it takes exactly the right moment to execute the things in the back of your head.”
If the sold-out crowd on his first day was any indication, as well as how this taster felt about it, that sandwich was definitely worth the wait.
Phu came to the soft opening prepared to make about 60 sandwiches. Those who showed up in the last hour of his 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. time slot were told the bad news: he was sold out.
Tired but happy from his first day, Phu spoke to Berkeleyside that same afternoon about why he’s chosen BanhMi-Ni as his next venture.
The banh mi is an iconic Vietnamese sandwich, born out of the nation’s French colonial period, when staple French foods like the baguette, butter, and cold cuts were introduced. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that the banh mi as we know it really took form. A classic banh mi, with pickled vegetables, fresh herbs paired with pâté, mayonnaise and some kind of meat on a baguette, is a true cross-collaboration of tastes, both Vietnamese and French.
With his especially creamy chicken liver pâté and hand-cut pickled carrots and daikon, Phu said, “These are the two key elements that retain the banh mi’s cultural identity. If you do those things well, no matter what else you put on it, people will love it.”
While a banh mi can often be found elsewhere in Oakland, and for about half the price, Phu said with his, he makes almost everything from scratch.
Of course, pastrami isn’t the only sandwich available. Phu said he will always have five rotating sandwiches on offer – with one vegetarian option, currently, featuring Beyond Sausage with a ginger-scallion sauce.
Other meat options on his opening menu are a chashu pork, a shoyu-poached pork loin marinated in soy and ginger; ginger & scallion turkey and hoisin chicken, which Phu said is inspired by the flavors of pho ga.
The bread Phu uses isn’t a baguette, but a hero/torpedo roll from Pan-O-Rama Baking, a San Francisco bakery that supplies some of the best restaurants in the Bay Area. He was introduced to the bakery when he worked at Acquerello. It’s the perfect combination of crusty outside, squishy inside, and most importantly, manages to hold the fillings intact when eating. Further deviating from a traditional banh mi, he lightly presses and grills each one (The name BanhMi-Ni is a play on banh mi and “panini.”).
Sandwiches are served with cucumber or banana flower salad. For refreshments, there’s a house-made lemongrass lemonade and iced Vietnamese cold brew.
Phu plans to pop-up at Copper Spoon for six months. After that, he’ll see, but a brick-and-mortar isn’t out of the question. While Copper Spoon is a sit-down restaurant and bar, BanhMi-Ni is fast-casual, with customers ordering at the kitchen window.
“Pop-ups are a genius thing for people with limited resources to try out a new concept at a very low cost,” he said.
Phu has worked under internationally renowned chefs, such as Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, but he said it’s his parents — immigrants from the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc off the coast of Cambodia — who are his biggest influence and inspiration for BanhMi-Ni. He chose to focus on banh mi for a number of reasons; a large one is that he wants his food to be accessible to everyone. His sandwiches are just under $10.
“I loved fine dining, but I didn’t like how unaccessible it was,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of work with people who were incarcerated and they inspired me just as much as I inspired them. I want those people to be able to try my food.”
Additionally, he said, when he worked in fine dining, his own friends and family couldn’t afford to try the dishes he was spending so much time creating.
“That always made me feel weird, and I felt more shame than pride working in spaces like that,” he said.
Since being named a “Rising Star Chef” by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2017 and then appearing on season 15 of Bravo’s competitive reality show, “Top Chef,” Phu has taken a non-traditional route. At the time, he was running a different pop-up called Ăn out of a space right above Copper Spoon, offering coursed, technique-driven Vietnamese fare — a fine-dining twist on family recipes.
Since his “Top Chef” appearance, Phu has done a traveling pop-up dinner series called Chef’s Hawker Center and is a Chef Ambassador for Whole Foods, creating a lemongrass sausage for the grocery chain that’s sold at the meat counter there.
“I’m humbled for so many people to be receptive to what I’m cooking,” he said.
While he still can’t give specifics yet, he’s been working on another project that will be announced soon, which has been taking up most of his time. And later this month, he’s joining some other Oakland chefs to cook at the James Beard House in New York City, at an event called “Ode to Kitchen Matriarchs.”
“I’ve always appreciated where cultures bridge and connect with each other; that’s always been my thing,” said Phu. “I think food always tastes the best when two bridges cross, and it becomes this super-beautiful thing. The banh mi is a reflection of that. I’m not trying to be authentic, but I’m adding to it from the cultures that inspire me. It’s the perfect vessel for that.”
Banh-MiNi is at Copper Spoon Kitchen & Cocktails from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Mondays through Fridays.