It's with good reason that legions of Columbus food fanatics are enamored with the Vietnamese subs (banh mi) from Mi Li Cafe. They're pretty great, but the bare-bones little place in the Columbus Square Shopping Center prepares lots of other terrific - and cheap! - homestyle Vietnamese foods, too.
If you've never been (the heck you waiting for?), Mi Li is a semi-spartan, counter-centric operation with a few tables. That doesn't mean the place is especially grim and dim or completely without charm.
Actually it's bright and tidy in there. And Mi Li is painted in alternating cheery colors like orange, purple, red and chocolate brown. All of the nice-enough "style" culminates in a sorta trompe l'oeil arcade running along Mi Li's main wall. But of course it's not the passable decor that attracts the restaurant's regulars.
I might as well start with the almost-famous subs - you probably should too. There's a veggie and cold cut version, but I prefer the model with "grilled porks" (Banh Mi Thit Nuong, $5). A true fusion sandwich with edible vestiges of Vietnam's colonial French occupation, it comes on a toasty and crusty baguette-like roll with a schmear of warm, black-peppery, relatively unfunky pate.
It's also loaded with seared, semi-chewy pieces of juicy, semi-sweet pork meat. Tacked on for bonus kicks is that cavalcade of Vietnamese-friendly garnishes like cucumber, jalapeno, cilantro, sweetened fish sauce and shredded carrot. Simultaneously savory, sweet and spicy, crispy and chewy, raw and cooked, this sandwich is a Mi Li must.
But so are the killer Crepes with Minced Pork (Banh Cuon, $7). They're like a salad with fried shallots, toasted nuts, licorice-y Thai basil, slices of odd, mild-tasting porky cold cuts and that above "cavalcade." All this rests atop the transparent, kinda gummi-bear-textured namesake little cylinders, which are packed with a warm, aromatic and irresistible minced pork mixture. Awesome.
Another excellent pick is a veritable one-bowl smorgasbord, in which salad, appetizer, noodle dish and meat entree merged together beautifully. It's the (wispy rice) Vermicelli with (meaty) Spring Rolls and (juicy) Grilled Pork - Bun Thit Nuong Gio ($8).
Full-meal soups are likewise comforting and multidimensional. Unsurprisingly, the place does a laudable job with its pho (pronounce it right: "fuh"). The soothing and steaming hot stuff implements a light, elegant and super-fragrant beef broth redolent of star anise, scallion and cilantro plus tons of thin rice noodles for its wonderful foundation. Extra options result in a custom-built luxury meal.
Order it deluxe style (Pho Bac Biet, $8) - as I do - and it'll arrive with all kinds of meaty bits pleasantly steeping away. Among the buried treasures, you'll get thin slices of still-cooking, full-flavored beef, springy little meatballs and wads of neutrally flavored, chewy tripe just for extra textural fun. On the side comes a panoply of DIY garnishes like lime, bean sprouts, mint, basil, long serrated coriander leaves plus hoisin and hot sauces.
Inherently richer and thicker was a bowl of bad-ass Beef Noodle Soup ($8). A healing balm against crappy weather, it came with boulders of beef (with easily trimmable fat) and a gravy-like broth.
Sure, a couple items I tried were more texturally interesting than flavor-rewarding (like ho-hum summer rolls and a subtle crab meat soup), but people who go to Mi Li only for subs and pho should be aware that there are plenty of other goodies here worth seeking out.
For more local food news and reviews, click to G.A. Benton's blog at blog.columbusalive.com/underthetable