There’s just something about a good soup and sandwich combination that’s kind of … perfect. Maybe it’s all the wonderful flavors and ingredients that can be packed into both a bowl of liquid goodness and between two slices of bread, or perhaps it’s the perfectly contrasted textures of the two. Either way, the combo is hard to beat and can come in countless forms, from tomato soup with grilled cheese to clam chowder and a lobster roll to gumbo and a po’ boy.
But I was inspired to go the Vietnamese route with the idea at Asian Express, a somewhat hole-in-the-wall counter-service spot nestled between chain stores offering coffee, sandwiches, burritos and frozen yogurt on 41st Avenue in Capitola. Having been a customer for years, this time I decided to pair their Vietnamese chicken noodle soup (which I’ve had plenty of times) with a chicken banh mi sandwich and shrimp spring rolls (both of which I had never tried).
I walked in recently for a mid-afternoon late lunch and ordered before being directed to sit at a comfy and plush booth. The food was served with a friendly disposition and within about five minutes, which was impressive given that the place was bumping even though it was 3:30 on a Wednesday afternoon. All of the sudden, my table was full, and my empty stomach was ready.
The profuse amount of steam coming off the soup told me not to start there, so the spring rolls were the obvious first choice. They were large by spring roll standards, and rolled just right—neither too tight nor too loose. The wrap was just enough to hold everything together; had it been any more delicate, it wouldn’t have been there at all. The fresh veggies added a great crunch, with a note of mint singing through, and the cold noodles in the middle added another layer of texture and delicate flavor. The shrimp had a nice bit of seafood brininess and yet another textural pop. The peanut dipping sauce damn near stole the show, though—I could have drunk the stuff straight (ok, I did). It had a robust peanut flavor, with just a bit of that grainy texture for authenticity, along with a seductive undertone of sweetness that had notes of caramel and almost reminded me of liquified Reese’s Pieces.
With my soup still steaming, I decided to crush the sandwich next. When I bit into it, the long white hoagie roll’s crust crumbled perfectly before giving way to a really light and bready interior. The chicken had good char and was very savory, fitting perfectly into the sandwich both physically and flavor-wise. The veggies added freshness and crunch, including shredded and slightly pickled jicama and carrot, cucumber, cilantro and the perfect amount of jalapeño so as to be assertive but not aggressive. The sauce was just enough, an enjoyable kind of sweet and savory combination that reminded me of hoisin.
More than happy with the sandwich, and with my nose now enjoyably running from the jalapeño, I had a minor freak-out when the napkin dispenser at my table ran empty. But I weathered the emotional storm, composed myself and garnished my soup. The side accouterments all go perfectly as fresh elements to add: bean sprouts, jalapeño, cilantro, fresh lime and especially the Thai basil with delightful undertones of licorice. Using chopsticks and a spoon to mix everything together and sink all the garnishes, the aromas rose from the bowl and invited me to dive in.
The first taste was everything the smell had promised, and more. It was rich and loaded with chicken flavor, salty and savory yet simultaneously light and delicate. The chicken itself was all white meat, thin-sliced, tender and flavorful. The broth-cooked rice noodles were a great starch component for the soup, and were a pleasure to eat, as always, adding an oh-so delicate flavor. And yes, as is the true test of any good soup, at the end I tilted the bowl and drank every last drop. The whole meal was fantastic—prominently flavored, yet restrained and subtle in a way that is so signature of this cuisine. It’s easy to see why the flavors of Southeast Asia have long seduced both chefs and food lovers alike, and Asian Express does them right.
1955 41st Ave. #A2, Capitola, 831-476-9999; asianexpresscapitola.com.