BY CHRISTINE BARBOUR
If you are into judging books by their covers, then Rush Hour Station is just a soup and sandwich place in Colstone Square on East 3rd Street. For owner Robyn Mai, a Vietnamese woman raised in the American South who wants to introduce her native food to a Midwestern palate, that is just the kind of friendly, reassuring impression she wants to convey.
But Rush Hour Station is a Vietnamese soup and sandwich place, and to call the banh mi merely “sandwiches” and the pho simply “soup” can’t entirely remove the exotic flavor. Banh mi are the ultimate fusion food: Created by the Vietnamese in the wake of their colonial experience with France, they are sandwiches of pork paté and other ingredients, including pickled vegetables and various meats layered onto a crisp baguette with mayonnaise, spicy chile sauce, and cilantro. A little Asian, a little French, a lot delish.
The banh mi—sorry, the sandwiches—at Rush Hour Station are not quite the real deal (customers balked at the pickled vegetables, for instance), but they are close. Diners pick from a list of 16 proteins (somewhat predictable ones, like Asian beef, maybe, or pork, or tofu, or golden mushroom, and some less so—pork and chicken dumplings called gyoza or vegetarian spring rolls) and ten sauces (like Asian barbeque, spicy Fire Engine Tim, Lemongrass, or Sweet Soy). The protein and sauce go on a baguette with cucumber, carrot, cilantro, pork paté (except in vegetarian or vegan sandwiches), mayo, and onion. The combination takes a little getting used to, but it works—creamy, salty, spicy, and crunchy, all in one delectable package.
The same protein and sauce choices are offered for a rice bowl or a noodle salad. Vietnamese noodle salads (usually, though not at Rush Hour Station, called bun chay) are a delight—cool vermicelli and salad vegetables made herby with cilantro, mint, and Thai basil. Doused with nuoc cham (a Vietnamese fish sauce) and topped with sliced meat or a crunchy spring roll, they are light and refreshing.
Vietnamese soups are called pho, but at Rush Hour Station they have lovely English names. “Smile From the Soul” is a vegetable soup with noodles and fried tofu—light and nourishing and comforting as a smile. “Be Kind to Each Other” features chicken, and “Your Path Has Many Meatballs” has, well, you can figure that one out.
Mai and her partner, Susan Su, are determined to entice the taste buds of college students and Midwestern natives alike. By cooking what Mai calls “Asian food for kids who did not grow up with it,” and by encouraging people to modify their soups, salads, and sandwiches to their taste, she hopes to make converts who will come back for a more authentic experience. To help bring its Asian food to those who might not otherwise taste it, Rush Hour Station launched a food truck this summer that makes the rounds downtown in the evenings, selling gyoza, massaman curry (a gentle and warm Thai curry with peanuts and potatoes), and banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches, to those in the know).