Bánh Mì Déjà Vu All Over Again
It seems America has finally discovered the bánh mì, the Vietnamese sandwich that offers a foot of crunch, savoriness, puckering and spice for less than $3. Bánh mìs have recently graced the pages of The New York Times (the Gray Lady declared 2009 “The Year of the Bánh Mì,” a year after the Washington Post proclaimed it “Hot”), received play in national foodie blogs, and were even recommended as a great picnic snack on The Splendid Table. Here in Orange County, however, home of Little Saigon, we yawn. (Note to Times food editors: When mentioning Vietnamese hubs in America, how the hell did you forget us in favor of the San Gabriel Valley and Washington? Washington?!) Bánh mìs are so 2002—Lee’s Sandwiches are almost as ubiquitous as Taquerías de Anda, and even the Vietnamese got over their sandwiches as a food craze to move onto crawfish houses and higher-end, higher-priced pho.
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Still, you can find undiscovered gems such as Nhu Lan Bakery, located in a shopping plaza that would seem more at home in Westminster than in north Garden Grove. This large, bright bakery sells the standards of a Vietnamese deli—pastries of the French variety (buttery Danishes filled with sweet cream and fruit fillings) and Vietnamese (fried doughnut holes bulging with mung-bean paste and covered in sesame seeds, puff pastries containing paté), along with dozens of made-that-morning meals ranging from spring rolls to noodles. They also prep a couple of sit-down meals—the chicken curry with rice is sweet, the bò kho (Vietnamese tomato beef soup) even heartier. Nhu Lan supposedly sells a killer coffee, but I’m no caffeine fiend, so I can’t comment on the drink. I have, however, tried about half of the dozen or so bánh mìs available, and I have found my second-favorite Vietnamese sandwich shop after Bánh Mì Cho Cu.
Nhu Lan prepares the expected—barbecued pork and chicken, a salty sardine version, others packed with your choice of pork. Their fried-eggs sandwich makes a strong case for including the breakfast bánh mì alongside the breakfast burrito as a staple of every Orange Countian’s morning. But the best bánh mì is the one prepared with lemongrass beef. Beef bánh mìs don’t seem to be very popular at Vietnamese bakeries, so I try them whenever I find them. This one is bueno: soft baguette soaking in the delicious, slightly spicy lemongrass sauce; lean beef slices countered by the sour charm of daikon, carrots, cilantro and furious jalapeños. I wince at paying $2.75 for a bánh mì the way I hate paying more than a buck for a taco, but Nhu Lan’s makes me gladly bite the bullet-shaped sandwich.
Nhu Lan Bakery at 13036 Harbor Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 638-8690.