Photo by Amy TheligAmericanslikemeat:many-prongedracksof rib, porterhouses the size of Phoenix, sandwiches so turgid with multifold cold cuts they could choke a Hungarian porn star. But you need class and health served alongside that nice processed mammal. You need a slim and delicious bánh mì: Vietnamese sandwiches with Chinese-influenced meat and a mini-Mekong of veggies inside a shatteringly crisp-crusted French baguette. Like a good three-piece band, the bread, meat and veggies blast chords of deep flavors and sharp, contrasting textures across the cavern of your mouth. A bánh mì ain't a hero—it's better. And at an average of 10 inches in length and $2 in cost, these sandwiches remain the most outlandish deal in culinary history.
Bánh mì shops have lined Little Saigon's avenues for decades, but Vietnamese merchants are only now leaving the enclave to conquer county stomachs. The most ambitious entrepreneur is Lee'sSandwiches,a San Jose-based chain that already has Orange County outposts in Westminster, Garden Grove and Fullerton. Lee's has served as a bánh mì introducer to many Orange Countians for the past four years, its picture-filled English-language menus making ordering easy for the non-Vietnamese.
But lest you think its bright, friendly atmosphere is a Taco Bell-ified version of Vietnamese cuisine, visit Lee's newest location—across the street from UC Irvine in the University Shopping Center (4127 Campus Dr., Irvine, 949-509-9299; www.leesandwiches.com). Check out the hordes of Asian students who stand in orderly file, thanking God—err, Don Bren—for gracing their lives with an affordable dinner. Then chomp into a bánh mì xá xíu, a barbecued-pork sandwich of shoulder meat cooked Chinese-style to a reddish glow, slightly sweet with a touch of fat. A leaner, less sweet option is the mildly flavored grilled pork: tender, savory pieces without a lipstick-red tint. The vegetarian bánh mì chay, vermicelli and fried tofu skin, is one of Lee's most popular, not just because of the health factor, but also because of its light, soy-glistened ingredients' charm.
Lee's only drawback is that none of its shops includes a drive-through window like the one at Lily'sBakery.Their latest branch (1005 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, 714-418-0099) also concerns itself with wedding cakes and pastries à la the original locale (10161 Bolsa Ave., Ste. 109B, Westminster, 714-839-1099; www.lilysbakery.com), but they also slap out a fine bánh mì, layering meats and vegetables into an eye-pleasing sandwich. The best choice is the bánh mì jambon, thick slices of boneless pork leg cured with black peppercorns and a mild vinegar tang. The pork fat gels during curing, adding a curious, slightly rubbery textural contrast to the rich ham and sharp black peppercorns.
Literally translated, "bánh mì" means "bread with," not "sandwich." This distinction becomes apparent at TaiBuuParisBakery(9039 Bolsa Ave., Ste. 101, Westminster, 714-895-6114). Order a bánh mì ga at the takeout counter, and you'll get a shredded-chicken sandwich. If you sit down and order cari ga bánh mì off the menu, though, a waiter will carry out a bowl of chicken curry stewed in turmeric-scented coconut milk; the bread comes as a half-baguette.
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The Vietnamese think of bánh mì sandwiches as fast snack food, so they differentiate these bánh mì from sit-down meals called bánh mì served with bread. Make sense? No? Ah, just chomp on the bánh mì thit nuong, barbecued pork seasoned with a restrained hand. Piled on their house-baked baguette and lacquered with a sweet, spicy chile sauce, the flavors and textures of bread, meat and veggies harmonize in the mouth.
As of this printing, TopBaguette(9062 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, 714-379-7726) has no plans of expanding—they'd rather focus on baking Orange County's best baguette within a tiny corner of strip-mall nothingness. Their hand-formed loaves feature thousands of tiny blisters on the surface, a tell-tale sign of slowly risen dough. This bread develops a rich, wheaty flavor during the extra time the yeast expands, instead of from the sweeteners or fats used in so many Little Saigon bakeries.
Top Baguette trumps its independent competitors primarily because of its care with ingredients. Their bánh mì heo nuong, ruddy and strongly flavored with hoisin sauce, tastes almost like a moist pork jerky. A meatball bánh mì is tender and cooked in a savory gravy subtly flavored with nuoc mam, the fish sauce Vietnamese pour onto their food like other Asians use soy sauce. For breakfast, Top Baguette even offers a bánh mì of two eggs over easy with pickled carrots, daikon, jalapeño and sprigs of cilantro. Lee's Sandwiches and the others are great, but if Top Baguette ever opened another location, the bánh mì would surely join the taco and pizza in the pantheon of ethnic grub considered as American as Ernie Pyle.
VISIT PROFESSOR SALT'S BLOG AT PROFESSORSALT.BLOGSPOT.COM.