While Edwin is right to laud the Filipino turo-turo tradition as the pinnacle of buffet experiences, the Vietnamese are not far behind. Most of Little Saigon's smaller restaurants have a couple of trays near the cash registers for quick ordering, but across the enclave are dives that specialize in the craft, with an encyclopedia of meals painted on windows or taped across walls and "Food to Go" somewhere on the marquee.
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All this said, don't be misled by Bánh Mì So's name—sure, it advertises the legendary Vietnamese hoagie as part of its name, but it's hardly the restaurant's specialty. There are maybe six varieties, advertised by faded pictures, and they're better than good—the bánh mì nem nuong, a thick baguette fattened with the usual bánh mì rainbow of pickled veggies and salty, smooth grilled pork sausage, is among Little Saigon's best. But you're better off making like the elders who are Bánh Mì So's core audience and pointing at the many trays, whose combined powers create an earthy scent that flows out to the parking lot and hits entering customers like a luscious crowbar to the senses. As at a turo-turo, the offerings change by the hour and won't feature names alongside them. Beef stews, spicy-sweet and unctuous, sit next to ruler-long skewers of pork balls, charred and smoky. Rows of spring rolls and egg rolls are stacked on trays next to one containing braised catfish, murky and perfect for throwing on rice. Not on the line are Bánh Mì So's various chaos, the Vietnamese porridges that can include anything from pork to fish to tripe; the latter is a mushy masterpiece, the funkiness of the innards playing against rice cooked down so much it has transformed into gruel. They even sell delicately crafted bánh xéo, the Vietnamese classic that's halfway between an omelet and a crepe and stuffed with veggies—but order one fresh, not from under the heat lamps.
If there's one must-get that's always available here, it's the bánh tieu—puffed-up fry bread the size of a balled-up T-shirt and studded with sesame seeds that pop with their tang. The inside is hollow, so all you're eating is essentially a massive crust—but what a crust! Toasted so the sugar mixed into the flour has caramelized slightly, turning the crust the color of the leather used on Spanish-style chairs, yet retaining a fluffy chew. Bánh Mì So shows that the buffet experience can be revelatory—now, if only it showed that to its local Chinese cousins.
This column appeared in print as "Big Buffet In Little Saigon."