I love to be surprised. Not the “Hey, your electric bill has doubled” sort of surprise, but the type of surprise where my expectations get blown away. This happened recently to my wife, Gay, and me on Mother’s Day.
We didn’t feel like eating at home. Nor did we feel like competing with everyone else who was going out for Mother’s Day. Where to go, where to go?
I remembered hearing about a place from a good friend that I have a lot of respect for, Pete Dulin. He had visited this place a few times recently. You know if someone goes back several times to a place, it’s probably good.
Since I grew up north of the river, I figured out exactly where this was: Right across from where the old Bob’s IGA used to be, and down the street from In-A-Tub. It’s a small strip mall. And as we pulled in to Bun Mee Phan at 4244 North Oak Trafficway, it was obvious the place is popular. Always a good sign.
The menu is surprisingly simple, yet with lots of variation. Let me explain. First, you choose a meat from the nine offered. Then you choose how you want to eat it: on a bun, in a rice bowl, in a noodle bowl, as a taco, in a spring roll or even stuffed in a type of house-made savory doughnut.
That tallies out to 54 possible combinations! If each option was described separately, it would probably make the menu look more like an East Coast Greek diner instead of this strip mall sandwich shop.
We decided to order the pork belly in the savory doughnut bread and the grilled pork in the roll. The soup of the day sounded good, so we ordered that as well.
When our meal arrived, I had no words except fresh, fresh, fresh! Fresh cucumbers, jalapeños, cilantro, pickled carrot and daikon radish. I grabbed the grilled pork in the roll first. As I bit in and experienced all of the flavors at once, I had a rush of simultaneous thoughts: That bread! The crunch of the veggies! The fresh flavors! That grilled pork! I needed to find out what the deal is here.
“Are you Jimmy?” I asked the man behind the counter. “My friend Pete said to say hi to you.” Jimmy Phan’s smile widened.
“This sandwich is amazing,” I said. “It’s so fresh … and this bread …” I trailed off.
“We get the bread daily from Le Monde bakery just down the street,” Phan said. Now that’s what I call local.
From there, we had about a half-hour-long conversation about traditional and fusion food, business, cultures, bread, influences and sandwiches. As it turns out, Jimmy Phan is the owner of Bun Mee Phan.
“I’m trying to bring traditional flavors and fusion to customers,” Phan said. “I think some people are intimidated or confused as to what traditional is or what they think traditional might be. I’m just trying to get them Vietnamese flavors in all different types of forms.”
From what I can tell, he’s doing a great job with that. Gay and I were both stuffed after finishing our sandwiches and soup and really shouldn’t have eaten anything else. But we did. You know that feeling when you’re not really hungry, but the flavors of the food are so good that you want to keep tasting more? That’s exactly what happened.
Intrigued by the idea of Vietnamese tacos, we ordered the chicken tacos at Jimmy’s suggestion. They looked like Mexican street tacos but with an Asian flair — bright, fresh flavor, layered over well-seasoned chicken on tortillas.
When trying a new place, Gay and I ask each other this question: Would you come back? I can tell you that in Bun Mee Phan’s case, the answer was a resounding yes from us both. And we have been back.
So if you’re thinking about a good sandwich or even some Asian fusion, you owe it to yourself to try Bun Mee Phan. It’s worth the drive. And don’t worry about not knowing what to order. Jimmy, or someone there, will walk you through the menu to help you find just what you’re looking for. Whatever you settle on, I hope you get the same fresh and delicious surprise that we did.
Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS barbecue judge, a student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.