There are few things in life better than a proper sandwich. Toothsome, fresh bread housing a complementary mix of proteins, crunchables and condiments is both a portable and satisfying midday punctuation and an unfortunate rarity in Beijing.
One of our favourite sandwich slingers closed its doors last year, but thankfully Rollbox is back, and just around the corner from the original location in a more modern, sleek and polished second edition. Rollbox is a small box of a venue, but plenty of natural light means it doesn't feel squashed and there's even a smattering of outdoor seating for the coming summer months.
The sandwiches here – alongside an expanded menu that now also includes salads, breakfasts and rice paper rolls – are of the Vietnamese variety. Banh mi are a glorious product of the not-so-glorious years of colonialism that brought French baguettes all the way to Southeast Asia, then made them even better by stuffing them full of Asian flavours.
We try the chicken and the tuna banh mi, both 42RMB, which is a significant mark up from the 20-30RMB rolls of yore. The tuna is a standout amongst the tuna mayo competition in the city, coming in undulating piles of protein and spiked with a chilli sauce to match the supporting crunchy veg and pickles. The chicken sandwich is however a little bland, missing the fragrant aroma of generous coriander and punchy spice that we'd normally expect from a banh mi.
For the carb-averse, Rollbox now offers all of its sandwiches in a salad form, with the fillings served atop a bed of baby leaves and rice vermicelli noodles. The beef satay bowl (58RMB) has a generous helping of juicy slices of meat, appropriately slathered in a thick satay sauce. A special mention must go to that satay, which is also served with the rice paper rolls. 38RMB gets you three delicately translucent and sizeable shrimp rolls; the wrapping is pleasingly sticky and the pork and veg filling hold together perfectly when dunked into the chunky satay, which is essentially a glorified, savoury peanut butter – what could be better? We're also very much into the dressing that comes with the beef salad: it's light, sharp and vinegary, with just the right amount of fresh chilli and refreshing Vietnamese flavours.
Another joyous Franco-Asian fusion is the invention of Vietnamese coffee, which is like French coffee but better, because it's served with condensed milk. Imagine if when you were a child someone told you that one day you'd be able to put condensed milk in your drinks and have that be considered culturally appropriate and sophisticated. It's insane, and proof that adulthood is truly as wild as you hoped it would be. The Rollbox Vietnamese coffee (35RMB) comes hot or iced and authentically served in a tabletop filter that slowly drips the coffee into that sweet, heavenly pool of milk below. For the evening hours, it even comes as a martini (65RMB), part of Rollbox's new cocktail menu that looks extremely tempting and summery indeed.
There are surprisingly few decent Vietnamese options in the area. Saigon Mama
is fair enough but it's in a mall; Susu
is better suited for a special occasion. For a fast, fun and cool afternoon bite that'll also take you into dusk, you could do a lot worse than rolling back to Rollbox.
By Amy Hawkins