The Tea Leaf Cafe is nestled in a strip mall within walking distance of the University at Buffalo’s North Campus. Known mostly to UB students, this cafe boasts a large selection of bubble teas, hot teas and other Asian-centric beverages like aloe juice and red bean ice. However, it is on the food menu that you can find a culinary gem: the roast pork Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich ($5.95).
One of the world’s great sandwiches, the bánh mì was born when France controlled Vietnam as a colony. “Bánh mì” was originally the crusty bread, similar to a French baguette, that the sandwich is served in, but the term now applies to the sandwich altogether.
Banh mi take many forms, but the basic generally includes various cuts of pork, pork liver pâté, pickled julienned carrots and daikon, cucumber, jalapeño peppers, cilantro, and mayonnaise. The more traditional will stuff the sandwich with head cheese or Vietnamese pork sausage in cold cut form, while the less culinarily daring prefer versions stuffed with marinated chicken or pork sauteed in a sweet and savory Asian sauce.
Over the years, my wife and I have developed a love for these sandwiches, traveling to distant corners of Western New York to get our fix. While my favorite local bánh mì can be found at Niagara Seafood or Pho Dollar – both in the West Side of Buffalo – Tea Leaf's version was definitely a contender, and much closer to my Amherst home.
The interesting aspect of Tea Leaf's sandwich was their use of char sui or Chinese barbecued pork. This is that same red-ringed pork you get in your pork fried rice at most Chinese restaurants. This char sui was sliced paper thin and slightly fried to get crispy. The sandwich was stuffed tight with pickled carrots and daikon, cucumbers and cilantro. Since I chose the spicy option it also had plenty of sliced fresh jalapeño peppers for a nice kick.
However, the real twist on this sandwich was spread used in place of the pork liver pâté. The spread was like a ham salad of cured pork, mayonnaise and fish sauce giving the sandwich a bacon-like umami bite. The winner was the crusty, glazed baguette that was both delicious and structurally sound, staying crispy and surviving the onslaught of pickle juices and soy sauce.
I did not love that the sandwich was served in a paper wrapper which collected juices and got messy fast, and the take out packet of soy sauce, though necessary for that umami boost, could have been more classy in a glass container. Overall though, the sandwich was delicious and certainly one of my favorites in town.
With a cup of tea, my lunch came to just over $10. The Tea Leaf Cafe is a convenient, inexpensive, culinary gem.
Info: Tea Leaf Café, 4224 Maple Road #124, Amherst, 831-8202
Joseph A. Leta is an Amherst attorney who specializes in criminal, business and divorce law whose lifelong goal is to find the world's greatest foods, and eat them.