DAIKON brings fast banh mi sandwiches to Boulder

Rob McGowan on bringing the popular Vietnamese-French fusion food to Boulder

By Tatyana Sharpton Jan 31 2020

The new locally owned banh mi shop DAIKON in the 29th Street Mall is one part green-space art gallery, one part deconstructed arcade and two parts craft sandwich shop.

DAIKON specializes in the Vietnamese-French fusion banh mi sandwich, which features a baguette filled with a savory meat such as pork and topped with cilantro, cucumber, and pickled veggies including daikon, a white radish-like root native to southeast and continental East Asia.

The fast casual restaurant faces west. A massive picture window exposes the Flatirons while sunlight strikes DAIKON’s bold title and casts long shadows on its engineered wood and cool grey walls.

DAIKON’s front-facing picture window along its 29th Street Mall home. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

The brainchild of Rob McGowan, who designed the menu as chef, and his brother Lon (owner of local coffee shop Alpine Modern), the shop began slinging sandwiches (and bowls) in November 2019 at 1805 29th St #1138 as round two to the original Denver DAIKON, opened two years ago in May 2017.

DAIKON’s Original Pork sandwich loaded with a forest of fresh cilantro and pickled veggies and paired with its Basil Mint Lemonade. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

Rob discovered the magic of banh mi in college at CU where he studied history; he calls it the perfect sandwich. “You’ve got satiating meat, the crispiness of the bread, the pickled veggies … the crunch and the salt, it’s got everything,” Rob says. “As a chef, it hits every piece of your taste buds.”

DAIKON’s best-sellers include the Original Pork sandwich and its Basil Mint Lemonade.

Other Boulder restaurants feature banh mi on their menus including organic and vegan-friendly Naked Lunch, but only DAIKON has them as its exclusive focus.

The Heart of DAIKON

Rob grew up in restaurants, with roles spanning from dishwasher to kitchen lead to head chef, a position he achieved by age 21; he has always loved cooking. Rob left the industry after college, and founded and ran a hand-made furniture company with a friend for 11 years.

Then, during a visit to his brother Lon in Seattle, the brothers, while sipping cold beers, started talking about getting back into restaurants. The two had spent countless hours in Seattle’s Uwajimaya district, where they ate a thousand banh mi. With over a decade of running a business and experience in building and design, including building out restaurant interiors through his furniture company in Rob’s case, the concept for DAIKON emerged.

Rob drew from his background in furniture design and installation for DAIKON’s interior, building and resin-coating the tables himself, installing the wood walls and creating the feature wall from speakers he found at Goodwill.

DAIKON’s interior offers a mix of urban and green space with its unique design and creative installations. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

As the location previously held a restaurant, the site had operable sinks, hoods and bathrooms already installed. With the bones in place, Rob could focus on design and the art of banh mi — the heart of DAIKON.

The banh mi focus

DAIKON’s limited menu — essentially seven sandwiches or bowls to choose from — stems from Rob’s interest in focusing on doing a few things really well.

Currently, the menu breaks its banh mi sandwich options down by the type of “meat” forming its foundation, with seven options including Teriyaki Chicken and Unami Mushroom, Smoked Salmon, 36-Hour Brisket and vegan-friendly braised Jackfruit and Lemongrass Tofu along with its original Pork.

Too many options often lead to cracks in process and quality. The team brainstorms the menu, paring down many ideas into the focused few that end up going live.

“It’s really hard to make a small menu,” Rob says. “When you’re getting creative juices flowing, you want to put on all these things. There are 100 other sandwich and bowl ideas I have.”

DAIKON sous vides its meats and pickles all its own veggies, slow-cooking the brisket for 36 hours, and making all of its sauces and drinks in-house as well.

Full steam ahead!

Banh mi, while popular in many areas, still can strike many as a fringe food.

“We get a lot of people who walk in, don’t know what it is and walk out,” Rob laughs. “Getting people to try something new can be challenging.”

Prior to opening its Boulder location, Rob spent about a year and a half testing and refining recipes at the Denver DAIKON lab. The company concept always included expansion, but for now Rob remains focused on the two locations and its food truck, “Banh Force 1.”

Header Image: Today Rob runs the company as its face and heads up all operations. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.