Julie Wong, born in Queens, tasted her first banh mi under the Manhattan Bridge when she was 16. Incredulous that she’d never tried one before, her boyfriend, Chris Hui, dragged her to a tiny stall in Chinatown with no seats and a kitchen equipped with little more than a toaster oven.
It was a meeting with destiny. Nine years later, in 2011, she and Mr. Hui — they later married — opened JoJu, a small banh mi shop on a crowded strip of Elmhurst, Queens, with her sister and her sister’s husband, Joanna and Scott Wong. (The name is a mash-up of Joanna and Julie.)
As the chef, Julie Wong worked closely on recipes with her brother-in-law, who grew up in Vietnam during the war and its difficult aftermath before his family found refuge in the Bronx. But the menu isn’t confined to tradition. “I wanted to embrace Queens as a melting pot,” she said.
So the classic banh mi dac biet — filled with a swirl of pâté, quivery head cheese and pale, thin sheets of cha lua, pork that has been pulverized and steamed, bearing a streak of fish sauce — appears alongside one crammed with Korean bulgogi, rugged strips of grilled rib-eye, caramel-edged and faintly smacking of honey.
Crunchy pickled daikon and carrots, tucked into every banh mi, are reprised in a heap over fries twice fried. There’s a tumble of cilantro and jalapeños, too, cleansing and stinging at once. The whole resplendent mess is lashed with spicy mayo, a rich demi-glace of pork stock, and a bright-hot green sauce — the kind that anoints Peruvian roast chicken, a dish Ms. Wong loved to eat as a child from restaurants along Roosevelt Avenue.
Call it fusion if you must, but done in a way that doesn’t assume the West is the starting point. And somehow, under all the adornments, the fries stay crisp, immutable.
Pork is the marquee item, whether braised with caramel brought to the verge of burning or ground and laced with fish sauce and sugar for a sausage as salty-sweet as barbecue. But one of the best fillings is vegetarian beef, a miracle of soy protein and fervent with ginger.
On the wall, a chalkboard lists the 10 Commandments of JoJu, first among them: “Thou shalt not forget the runny egg on the banh mi.” Add a fried egg to any sandwich, or the fries for that matter, and it comes leaking sun. Two fried eggs are slapped over cha lua for a sandwich that’s warm and cool at once.
When judging banh mi, bread is always a matter of contention. Rice flour is used in Vietnam to counter the humidity, but can turn the dough leaden here, according to the cookbook author Andrea Nguyen. Ms. Wong prefers hers made solely with wheat flour — customized to her specifications by a local baker — and toasted ever so briefly, to give the crust extra crackle without it fracturing into a thousand shards.
Should the outer shell be flakier, the inside fluffier? Sure, but the search for the perfect banh mi could last a lifetime. For now, I was content.
You might forego bread entirely and opt for the same fillings over rice, in a bowl mobbed with fried shallots, mellow kimchi and more pickled daikon, carrots and red onions gone pink. It’s a familiar format with livelier trappings than most.
In October, JoJu expanded to a sleek two-level outpost on Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, with iPad kiosks, an Instagram-primed alcove emblazoned with the words “Oh Darling Darling Stand Banh Mi,” and an astonishingly efficient and upbeat squad of sandwich assemblers at the ready. (Another JoJu is set to open nearby, at 52nd and Lexington, in late spring.)
For each spot, Ms. Wong said, “I was thinking about the community.” In Queens, the menu is in Chinese and English, and banh mi come slung in wax-paper egg-roll bags. In Manhattan, English is all, and sandwiches are packed in branded boxes of lemongrass-green.
Head cheese is available at the Fifth Avenue address but unmentioned on the menu, because Ms. Wong was concerned that the term would confuse some customers. And although both places offer versions of ca phe sua da — coffee like brewed night, lush with condensed milk — only in Elmhurst will you find a “pickled mojito,” JoJu’s take on soda chanh muoi, fizzy lemonade muddled with lemons and limes left to brine for more than four months.
The drink is “not for everyone,” Ms. Wong said, but I disagree. It tastes of salt and sugar with no barriers between, and a promise of summer, way off in the distance.
83-25 Broadway (Dongan Avenue), Elmhurst, Queens, 347-808-0887; and 555 Fifth Avenue (46th Street), Midtown, 332-204-2278