F or Duc Nguyen, making a delicious bánh mì isn’t just an art, it’s a science. And Nguyen knows a lot about science.
Nguyen’s small storefront on Orange Street is where he crafts his sandwiches and other Vietnamese meals. Decorated with palm trees and tangerine-orange stacks of Cafe du Monde canisters, classic jazz drifts through the air and a photograph of Duke Ellington hangs on the wall—an homage to the song “Duke’s Place,” the restaurant’s namesake.
Duc’s Place opened in April 2016, but Nguyen had been thinking about opening it long before that. While working as a cancer researcher at Yale-New Haven Hospital, which he did for 13 years, Nguyen increasingly missed the food experience of his childhood in Vietnam. “My mom would give us a little money to go get lunch. On the way, we would pick up some street food—rice dishes, noodles or sandwiches,” Nguyen reminisces. He could conjure that experience while studying at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, with its diverse street food scene, but when he came to New Haven about a decade and a half ago, there was little to no Vietnamese food to be found.
Now, there are several restaurants in the area that offer it, but Duc’s Place is unique in that it focuses on the bánh mì. Literally translated, bánh mì means “wheat bread,” but as fans of the delicacy know, there’s a lot more to it: a protein, vegetables (pickled and fresh), herbs, a schmear of tangy mayo and a splash of savory, soy-based Maggi sauce. And the bread isn’t just any old wheat bread; it’s baguette.
“It’s a remnant of our heritage from the French colonial days,” Nguyen says. The French brought the baguette and mayo, the Vietnamese provided the vegetables and protein, and—with an assist from the Swiss, who concocted the Maggi sauce—the result was this Vietnamese staple.
At Duc’s, the Lemongrass Pork Bánh Mì ($8.50) features a gleaming baguette roll with its fillings stacked like geological layers. Atop a thin spread of pâté, the pork is velvety, with a curl of herbal smokiness from its char and the lemongrass. Slivers of pickled daikon and carrot add a cold crunch, and ribbons of fresh cucumber and cilantro look and taste vibrant. For those so inclined, jalapeños are a finishing wave of heat atop it all. To make his sandwiches more healthful, Nguyen actually forgoes the traditional mayonnaise, letting the Maggi sauce stand alone.
Duc’s Place also serves Vietnamese coffee, both hot and iced ($3.50-$4). Vietnamese-style coffee is distinguished by both its preparation and its ingredients. Typically a French roast brewed fiercely strong, Nguyen uses the chicory-inflected coffee of New Orleans’s famous Cafe du Monde, tins of which are stacked in Vietnamese markets across the country. The espresso-like coffee is then mixed with sweetened condensed milk, and provides a soothing burnt caramel counterpoint to the bánh mì’s heat, if you chose to go with the jalapeños.
I also tried the Bánh Bao ($3). A steamed pork bun, its exterior consists of fluffy, sweet dough twisted to form a whorl on top. It contains a molten pork meatball, dotted with crunchy water chestnut and green onion, plus two more surprises: a quarter of a hard boiled egg and a slice of candy-like red Vietnamese sausage.
The Mango Smoothie ($4), one of several tropical fruit smoothies for sale, was a meal itself. Made with mango chunks and half-and-half, giving it an almost buttery flavor, the smoothie tasted more like a milkshake. Nguyen’s personal favorite is the Durian Smoothie, though he admits the notoriously smelly fruit might be a hard sell for some people.
Duc’s makes nearly everything from scratch, and Nguyen has devoted significant time experimenting with the bread recipe to create his ideal crunchy crust. Sometimes, when the bread doesn’t rise to his liking or if he runs out of an ingredient, he closes his doors for the day.
“I was a scientist,” Nguyen says with a smile, “and I have certain expectations.”
Written and photographed by Anne Ewbank.