Come larpers, come nerds, come fanboys. Reading Terminal Market welcomes all. Like the trio of ninja turtles, wearing homemade shells. Like the prepubescent boy dressed like Harry Potter, complete with glasses outlined on his face with eyeliner. Like the jedi warrior, in a “real” costume, head down, hustling past us as we entered the Market.
Comic Con was in Philly this past weekend and, given the convention center’s proximity to Reading Terminal Market, we weren’t surprised to find our weekend dining accompanied by various characters sprung from the imagination of sexually frustrated boys. Wish I could say that our trip to Coastal Cave–which sounds like a superhero’s lair or the latest Pitchfork-reviewed indie rock band–was inspired by our company, but no. We just wanted to try some banh mi.
In case you haven’t heard, banh mi is the wonderful, cheap Vietnamese sandwich made with French bread and piled with meat pate, cilantro, cucumbers, pickled daikon and carrot and a mayo based sauce. In short, they’re delicious and ubiquitous in Philly (search “banh mi philadelphia” to see head-to-head match ups, including this one which rated banh mi from 5 shops). We had just recently been wondering why no one in the Market was selling banh mi when, like a bolt from Pyro, we noticed that Coastal Cave was doing just that.
But not well, unfortunately. Coastal Cave is a fishmonger, so their banh mi was fish focused. We ordered pickled herring and sardine banh mis, but were told that they didn’t have pickled herring. We switched to a blackened catfish banh mi, a fusion concoction odd enough to cause me to give a quizzical glance at my companion. He hardly noticed, as he looked over the other offerings, a series of “grease truck” style sandwiches of the madlibs “fat ____” variety. Fried fish and pork roll? No thanks.
We watched as the cook opened a can of sardines into a frying pan to make our banh mi–so much for the fresh fish in the case. So dazzled were we by the spatula action that we missed our blackened catfish being made at all. Suddenly, there were two foil wrapped sandwiches before us and we were off to find a place to sit.
Unwrapped, the sandwiches looked right, but, like the evil villain who masquerades as an upright citizen by day, something was off. Was it the lack of sauce? The only moisture was provided by the pickled carrot and daikon mix. On the plus side, the cilantro was fresh and offered a nice zing. The fish itself–both the catfish and sardines–however, were underseasoned. The bread, which should have a crisp snap given by the use of rice flour, was fine, but not noteworthy. Nothing stood out; nothing lifted the sandwich into the realm of deliciousness. In fact, reader, an occurrence rarer than a solar eclipse happened–I didn’t finish my sandwich. To compete in the banh mi market, Coastal Cave is going to have to up the ante.
Recommended: going to Q.T. Vietnamese for banh mi (especially lemongrass tofu) as an appetizer, then to Shiao Lan Kung on Race St. for salt baked shrimp, and, finally, Harmony Bakery for a taro or coconut bun, accompanied with Vietnamese coffee.