Right now, the biggest thing happening in the Weekly's food universe is on our Stick a Fork In It blog: the Final Pho! Edwin, bloggers Dave Lieberman and Shuji Sakai, and I each picked our four favorite pho restaurants and are matching them up in a 16-team tournament to determine, once and for all, the best pho in Orange County—and, therefore, the United States. It's already an epic tourno, with upsets, upstarts and old champeens stubbornly refusing to make way for a new generation.
We'll probably do a contest like that next year, but with Orange County's other Vietnamese culinary lingua franca: the bánh mì. Among the favorites in that bracket would be Saigon Bakery, a claustrophobic storefront that seems to consist of nothing but people and shelves groaning with freshly produced food—shiny egg rolls and pâté chaud, glistening goi cuon wrapped in plastic, freshly fried crullers dripping with grease, just-roasted peanuts in plastic bags misty with condensation. Those disappear by the end of the day, along with the desserts in the cold case and the rows of Vietnamese coffee behind the counter. But the reason the line extends out the door and into the parking lot is the bánh mìs, torpedoes of crunch and saviors of our stomach during these stretch-a-penny times.
Saigon Bakery differs from its competitors in that it actually places an emphasis on bánh mìs made not with a baguette, but rather a rounder bread akin to a torta roll; buy two of these and get one free, an offer it doesn't extend to the baguette bánh mìs. They're fine sandwiches, thick and chewy, but you miss the crunch of the baguette, and the eatery doesn't offer the same meats as with the foot-longs. You won't get the nem nuong, delicate pork sausage as soft as a pâté, sweet and sluiced with a peanut sauce. You won't enjoy the fried-egg bánh mì, decadent enough for Guy Fieri. The sharp sardines, the tough bì—here is bánh mì paradise—and did I mention it bakes those glorious baguettes, brown and airy, every morning?
One final point about Saigon Bakery, one noted only for those of you who care: English is severely lacking here, even more so than at other Little Saigon shops. Even if you order off the menu, you're more than likely to get a quizzical look from the cashiers. Just pronounce it in Vietnamese—what, you still don't know restaurant Vietnamese? Get with the new OC already, son!
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This column appeared in print as "Bánh Mì Champeen?"