Photo by Steve LoweryYou have to hand it to the French. Unlike their genocidal English and rapist Spanish counterparts, the Frenchies' most lasting contribution to their former colonies has been cuisine, the best examples being found in various Vietnamese victuals. But did you know that Gallic gastronomic influences are also present in the Mexican diet? (Did you even know that Mexico was once a colony of France?) Or that Mexico and Vietnam share a meal that owes its existence to French imperialism?
C'est vrai. The answer lies in bread. The French embedded in Vietnamese and Mexican culture a hunger for loaves, from which came two of the world's finest sandwiches. Though the most obvious similarity between the sandwiches—the Vietnamese bánh mì and Mexican torta—is the French connection, other ties such as their cheap price, largesse and amazing taste will have you reuniting these relatives by colonization into one colossal meal.
Both a bánh mì (pronounced "bang me") and a torta are made with big bread sticks—baguettes for the former, huge rolls known as bolillos for la otra. But the sandwiches diverge from this common foundation to tastes that are wildly different and distinctly divine.
Bánh mì is universally prepared by putting a light layer of mayonnaise inside the baguette that is then counterbalanced with pickled carrots, daikon radish, cilantro, cucumbers, jalapeño shavings and your choice of meat. The interplay among the various ingredients creates a complex taste that will shift your flavor system into overload. Depending on which foodstuff touches which taste bud at which particular bite, a bánh mì can be sweet, sour, spicy or salty, though it will always be scrumptious.
Tortas, on the other hand, barrel subtleness over with an onslaught of meat. The sandwiches are crafted by cramming bolillos with repollo, onions, tomatoes, beans, and either salsa or jalapeños. Most tortas are vegetarian-hostile, dominated by uniquely Mexican meat styles like chorizo, carne asada or adovada, a watery, sinewy beef slathered with a slightly sweet sauce.
The most important non-colonizer parallel between the sandwiches is the cost. Most places that sell bánh mì go no higher than $1.75, while the going price for tortas nowadays is about a dollar more. Bánh mì and tortas can be found nearly anywhere in Vietnamese and Mexican OC, but two restaurants I particularly recommend are Q Tortas in Placentia and Lee's Sandwiches in Westminster. Q's is unique because it's one of the few restaurants in La Naranja exclusively devoted to the torta-making trade. And the local landmark, having been there for nearly a quarter-century, does not disappoint, turning out monstrosities only slightly smaller than the King James Bible.
Lee's Sandwiches is also devoted to the craft of continuing the French colonial legacy. I usually don't shill for chain restaurants—Lee's is based in San Jose—but I'll make an exception for Lee's due to its superb handiwork and the spectacle of seeing the restaurant packed every day from early morning to late evening. Lee's offers more than 10 selections of bánh mì, but a good place to start is the bánh mì xá xíu (barbecued pork), which is cooked in what should be the world's prototypical barbecue sauce. Vegetarians can go for the bánh mì bi chay, a tofu, vermicelli noodle and vegetable sandwich that should be a welcome relief to vegetarians tired of their pita options.
I've already compared pho and pozole in these pages, and now bánh mì and tortas. Next up: the Mexican obsession with Vietnamese food (as opposed to the Vietnamese obsession with cheap Mexican labor). For two supposedly different cultures, Vietnamese and Mexicans sure have a lot in common, n'est pas?
Q Tortas, located at 220 S. Bradford Ave., Placentia, is open Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 9 a.m.-9 p.m. (714) 993-3270. Dinner for two, $6, food only. Cash only; Lee's Sandwiches, located at 9261 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, is open daily, 5 a.m.-9 p.m. (714) 901-5788. Dinner for two, $3, food only. Cash only.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.