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Friday, Sept. 14, 2012

Bun Me: Vietnamese Sandwich, Via Cart

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Ask most food-truck operators what the hardest part of their business is, and they’ll usually offer the same unsurprising answer: the truck. They’re expensive to buy, difficult to maintain and a headache to park, and many of them burn through gas as quickly as you can fill their tanks. For their first foray into street food, then, Matt Bettine and Alex Palm opted for a simpler alternative with a much more tenable startup cost: an old-fashioned cart.

“The cart is nice, because it was something we could buy with the cash we had on hand, without having to secure financial backing,” Bettine says. “But the other nice thing about a cart is it’s a lot more personal. When you’re dealing with a food truck, it can be intimidating because you’re interacting with a person through a small window, yelling your order at them. The cart gives the chef a chance to really talk to the customer and to answer their questions or accommodate special requests directly, in a way that’s not possible even in a restaurant.”

That face time with the customer is particularly important for Bettine and Palm’s Bun Me cart, since it serves a product much of Milwaukee is unfamiliar with: bánh mì sandwiches. Bánh mì are available at some of the new Vietnamese restaurants around the outskirts of the city, but they’ve never had a presence Downtown or on the East Side, so they require a bit of explaining for many of the bar-time customers who mistake Bun Me for a hot-dog cart. The sandwiches come in three varieties—chicken, caramelized pork belly, or vegetarian soy meat (which, like the chicken, is topped with a tangy lemongrass sauce, a savory peanut sauce or a bit of both). All of them are loaded with fresh vegetables and herbs and served in a crispy-on-the-outside, ultra-soft-on-the-inside French-style roll.

“We wanted to serve something that was delicious, but also healthy and something that you couldn’t easily find in the city,” Bettine says. “Our customers can probably be divided between people who are excited to find bánh mì because they can’t usually get it without a drive, and customers who have never even heard of it before. We’ve been able to make converts out of many of the newcomers. A lot of them have become regular customers; it’s just a matter of introducing them to a really delicious food they hadn’t been aware of.”

Bun Me will be on the streets through November before taking a break for the winter. You can track the cart using a lunchtime and bar-time schedule posted to its Facebook page.