Little Saigon has the best bánh mì shops in the nation, despite the absurd New York Times story we ridiculed here on this blog a couple months ago. Sure, the San Gabriel Valley has a few great shops, as do San Jose and a number of other Vietnamese enclaves across the country.
Orange County's own Little Saigon remains the single-largest concentration of Vietnamese outside Vietnam and thus home to an overwhelming number of banh mi specialists, both good and mediocre. Where should you go for exceptional Vietnamese sandwiches?
Not Lee's Sandwiches. The gateway bánh mì chain has introduced these ethnic sandwiches to millions of Americans and continues its expansion across the country. Yet I'm grateful for the work they do. Their brightly lit stores, fast-food feel and English-friendly photo menus make a welcoming place for non-Vietnamese clientele to fall in love with these sandwiches.
However, Lee's makes bread that resembles dense, dry cotton on the inside. And the fillings they use? Very much industrially cooked, uniformly mediocre, fast-food proteins.
Lynda Sandwich sits poised across the parking lot from a Lee's Sandwich location. The place already makes the best beignets in Orange County, but it also makes my favorite banh mi at the moment. It has a golden ratio of bread to meat to pickles, along with a light smear of a very flavorful garlic mayo made with a lash of Vietnamese nuoc mam. The bread--though not baked in-house--is ideal for use in a sandwich. Slender and thin-crusted, the crispy shards shatter as you bite into a tender, still-moist crumb.
The fillings are all prepared according to family recipes and cooked to order. If Lynda Sandwich can be criticized for anything, it's the wait while your food is made just for you. If you're in that much of a hurry, walk across the parking lot to Lee's where they have a fast-order system that runs like a Swiss watch. On the other hand, if you care more about the food, order a coffee at Lynda's, clear a couple levels of Angry Birds and check your e-mail, and the wait will pay off.
The banh mi dac biet, a.k.a. the Lynda Special, is the bestseller. It's made with grilled chicken, slices of white, pork-roll cold cuts (the pork equivalent of pressed-and-formed chicken deli meat) and smears of pork pâté and garlicky mayo. The grilled chicken is generously spiced with white pepper adding more heat than you might be used to from other shops.
That white pepper shows up prominently in a lot of other fillings. If you prefer your heat levels a bit milder, try the eggs over-easy with slices of sweet Chinese lap xuong pork sausage. My spice-sensitive 10-year-old enjoys this breakfast-anytime sandwich. He would not dig the pepper-heavy BBQ pork (xa xiu) or the very fishy banh mi ca. This grilled fish filling starts with fresh, dark-meat tuna that's been marinated, cooked until well-done and smoky, then flaked into very pungent shreds. Give the grilled fish a go if you like bottarga, sardines, mackerel and bluefish. It's definitely not for banh mi beginners, nor for those whose idea of a fish sandwich awaits at McDonald's.
If you are a banh mi beginner and would like guidance from the staff, you'll be happy to know that there is no language barrier nor brusque service. For starters, all of them scored higher on the English SAT's than you did.
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At the risk of coining a contradiction, Lynda's is our first high-end banh mi shop. Just as other higher-end restaurants in Little Saigon such as Quan Hy, S Fine Dining and Xanh Bistro have raised the bar in décor, service and sophisticated food, Lynda elevates our expectations of a banh mi shop. Yet the price for quality is in line with other banh mi shops. Most sandwiches are $2.95 and the most expensive (grilled shrimp banh mi) costs a paltry $3.95.
Compare those figures with the similarly priced but not nearly as delicious Lee's Sandwich across the parking lot. Better yet, go a half-mile south on Beach Boulevard to Whole Food Market, whose farcical $8 "bon mi" (their spelling, not ours) bilks the uninitiated who have no idea about the authentic and delicious sandwiches that await on the fringe of Little Saigon. I urge you, people: Eat here, not there.
Lynda Sandwich 15380 Beach Blvd., Ste. B, Westminster, (714) 898-5400.