One of the boons to living anywhere long enough is getting to know the hidden gems. Settle for a decade in even a mediocre food ’burg and you should be able to impress dates and out-of-towners with ethnic pearls of little publicity and zero Thrillist appearances. Banh Mi Nhu Y was once all that and more. Tucked away inside the Pacific Produce Market in Greenfield, you could peruse duck heads and duck eggs and big squids while you waited for your counter order of cheap, banging bahn mis. And if you wanted to outdo any food tour and/or your small intestine, you could combine that with Milwaukee’s best pho, from just next door at Pho Viet. Now the sandwich folders have jumped the shark, so to speak, renaming themselves Xankia and bringing their underrated pork and pate delivery packages to the 53203 masses.
The space: The pronunciation could cause slight problems (it’s “Sun-kia”), and the location could cause major ones. Philly Way failed here, and so did Wingz. So did something called Finch’s Corned Beef. And if the most recent tenant, the Armenian shaslik-slinger Arin Bert, with their hummus and falafel and killer kebabs, couldn’t maintain a steady clientele, it’s hard to imagine much taking root.
On a recent Friday afternoon a steady glut of bike messengers at least seemed to be keeping things popping, pointing at and ordering sandwiches from the big pictures on the sandwiches menu. Some college-aged girls huddled over comically large bowls of steaming soup while we tried to come up with synonyms for clean. What can you say about a commercial sheened vibe, with bright lights, whiffs of Spic and Span, and a new TV? There’s a semblance of a juice and coffee bar at one end, with assorted boba flavors, and an unfortunately prominent tin of Folgers.
But as a corporeal entity, Xankia is basically a happy-enough cafeteria for adults on the go. Yes, it’s a fine spot to read an alternative newspaper and sip a super sweet Vietnamese iced coffee ($3.50), very much not like the previous location and its strict grab-and-go sandwiches. It’s not a façade you’re likely to impress any gastronomic thrill-seekers with. But nothing matters anyway if this weird edge of West Town—one that can feel downright desolate on weekends and evenings when there’s nothing going on—continues the assault on calorie entrepreneurs.
The service: Sometimes a new proprietor is so earnest, so smiley, so eager to please it’s hard not to smell desperation and offer a requisite pity thumbs-up. Here our counter man seemed so earnest, so smiley, so eager-to-please that we would have given the thumbs-up even had he not been so professional and on top of our shit. He has been here before, and went the extra mile for effort, taking our order, hustling across the joint for our coffee, even filling our serve-yourself water as we were too distracted by the on-table accouterments. Before us: fish sauce, soy sauce, a full-size bottle of Sriracha, and thai chilli garlic sauce. Sometimes, the best service comes in the form of things already on the table.
Milwaukee Record’s food: Our order of a pre-sandwich pork bun ($3) was but a matter of journalistic manners. Wrapped in cellophane, bulbous, bready, and moist, it was a neat carbohydrate incubator for some crumbly ground pork, mushroom, and a surprise hard-boiled egg. Put on some sauce, any sauce, and it’s a zinging little meat pie. There was something a bit off, though, after the first few bites—probably that lingering bit of cellophane, even after we had removed it.
The same if-we-must energy went into ordering the pho ($8.99). While salty and pleasant, the dish in general seems to have been recently, and appropriately, bypassed in popularity and intrigue by ramen, and maybe feels a bit rote at this point. Here the brown broth and beef and meatball and self-assembly sides of bright green jalapeno slices, big mint leaves, and noodles make for good slurping, especially when it’s still gray and cold. But get past said foreplay without any hunger loss, and you’ll be aptly rewarded.
The house special ($5.25) seemed a necessary sandwich starting point, it bringing folded pate slices coming on like Liverwurst. Here the soft meat didn’t shine through as much as played a part in a harmonious medley: the French baguette came just a tad warm and crusty; the “special mayo sauce” was spicy and runny; the cilantro was in generous leaves; the neon bright jalapeno slices had seeds and mouthfuls of oomph. Yes, we don’t like carrots, because who does? But here they do a job, along with daikon and cucumber, giving a perfect snap to each bite and maintaining structural integrity. For a sandwich so saucy, with so many components, there was almost no fallout. If we would have stopped ourselves here, like people of normal appetite, we would have felt happy, content with a good banh mi and place-specific treat.
And then we tried the grilled pork ($5). The soft bits were juicy, tender, and impossibly flavorful, the entire structure seeming to levitate itself back toward our face hole with unstoppable inertia. It covered all the hopeful sandwich tenets: qualitatively meaty, saucy, with kick and texture, and an almost perfect ingredient ratio. There could have been a touch more meat (the only real complaint on any of the tried sandwiches), but it yielded to some of the happiest swallows of diced pig in recent memory. We wondered: How did the same bread and toppings yield a taste sum so altogether different? How was this so good that we forgot to add thai chilli garlic sauce? How many more should we order? Could the sardine with special sauce sandwich make a good dessert?
It would have been downright irresponsible to not at least sample a Vietnamese take on a meatball bomber ($5). We found ourselves gluttonously nibbling, with soft, loose meat bites swimming through the yellowish spiced mayo, tomato sauce soaking up into the bread and our pleasure zones. It was all too much, literally. Never before have we been at once so stuffed and so ready for the forthcoming midnight snack.
The verdict: Somehow, not quite the best bahn mi in town—that distinction still belongs to maybe the ultimate “in-the-know” spot, Pho Hai Tuyet. But here we have massive, undeniable, walloping flavor belying simple surroundings, uninspiring décor, and proletariat pricing. If ever a hidden gem might exist near the middle of Downtown, this is it.