Rook Report: Banh Mi in Fletcher Place

Could this sandwich become our new shrimp po’boy? Ed Rudisell carves out a little space for the Saigon sub.

The restaurant itself looks like an architectural mistake, or maybe some kind of dreamy afterthought amid the plate glass and patterned brick masonry of Fletcher Place’s polished new mixed-use complex, The Hinge Building. Just a narrow slip of tables—16 two-tops from stem to stern—and a simple brown shingle out front let you know you have found Rook, Ed Rudisell’s latest contribution to inspired dining in Indianapolis. And though it bears little resemblance to the restaurateur’s other two ventures—Thai-centric Siam Square and modern-agrarian Black Market—this modest little industrial-chic spot with the counter service and refrigerated soda case might be Rudisell’s most advanced concept yet.

Two months after the June opening, Rudisell enlisted former Oakleys Bistro sous chef Carlos Salazar to run the kitchen and eventually flesh out the food. But in the beginning, the menu focused nearly exclusively on banh mi, the crusty, offal-stuffed Vietnamese baguette layered with veggies and a smear of mayo, a product of French colonialism in Indochina that has saturated markets like Chicago (where Rudisell first fell in love with the sandwich) and Manhattan (where one of the best in town can be had at a “ramshackle Lotto-ticket-and-cigarette shack,” says New York magazine).

An unrolled scroll of brown butcher paper behind the cashier lists nine sandwich offerings. The Rook, the kitchen’s most traditional banh mi, involves a bologna-style slice of Vietnamese pork roll from Smoking Goose, steamed and pale with funky hints of fish sauce, along with a layer of crumbled chicken-liver terrine made in-house. As with every banh mi at Rook, this one comes with the standard (and essential) garnishes: slivers of pickled Korean radish and carrot, a tangle of cilantro, and thin slices of fresh jalapeño, all adhered with the thinnest swipe of mayo to the guts of a sliced baguette made specifically for Rook by local bakery Cornerstone Bread. Beyond that, the banh mi concept is wide open to interpretation. “We call these Vietnamese-style sandwiches, because most of them are pretty nontraditional,” says Rudisell, noting that he has a marinated-steak banh mi that is essentially a Korean bulgogi sandwich, and a vegetarian version stuffed with Indian-spiced tofu. There is also a sardine banh mi called the Surfing Bird that holds meaty hunks of the highly sustainable, oil-packed fish—as much an acquired taste as the oddly textured ground beef–peanut curry Black Wing.

The Nighthawk is a modified version of the nam sausages from Northern Thailand, where the links ferment as they hang outside.

But the star of the menu, the Nighthawk, contains a length of Thai sour sausage that is ground, stuffed, and fermented on-site from a mixture of pork shoulder and belly, garlic, onions, and rice. It is a modified version of the nam sausages from northern Thailand—where the links ferment as they hang outside in ambient heat for a couple of days. “That’s something we just couldn’t do here,” Rudisell says. Paired with a bag of pork cracklings still hot from the fryer or a pile of warm shrimp chips—tapioca flour mixed with pureed shrimp and fried to a Pringles-like crisp—the versatile banh mi could easily catch on here.

Especially when it is packaged as slickly as this. Designed under the guidance of Nikki Sutton of Level Interior, with some assistance from artist Kipp Normand (who carved the wooden birds perched throughout), the intentionally ragtag decorating scheme simulates a bustling alley. Everything—from the ropes of mini lightbulbs looping off of three fallen telephone poles that bust through the plaster walls, to the roughed-up yellow metal chairs, to the street-poster art on the ceiling—references the banh mi’s origin as a grab-and-gobble street food in the markets of Saigon. The theme seemed destined to happen when the developers of The Hinge shaved square footage off of two adjoining commercial spaces to create the shotgun room down the middle that became Rook.

Does it really matter that the scrappiness is completely fabricated? Should we scoff at the $8 price when fans of the humble sandwich claim you should never pay more than $5 ($4? $2.50?) for a banh mi? Probably not. Let’s just sip our coconut LaCroix and pretend we are on the front end of a trend getting reinvented before our very eyes.

Photos by Tony Valainis

This article appeared in the September 2013 issue.

719 Virginia Ave., 317-759-5828, 
HOURS Mon. 11 a.m.–2 p.m., Tues.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–9 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m.–11 p.m., Sat. noon–11 p.m., Sun. noon–9 p.m.