Orange County's third Whole Foods opened in mid-October in the Bella Terra complex at Beach and Edinger in Huntington Beach. This didn't stir up much sentiment around these parts, since most of us at Fork live closer to the organic juggernaut of a Whole Foods in Tustin, until we discovered that the "local flavor" sandwich at the new Whole Foods's food court was bánh mì.
It makes sense, of course. The Whole Foods at Bella Terra is quite literally a stone's throw from Westminster, the epicenter of Vietnamese culture in Southern California. Little Saigon finally has a Whole Foods to call home, and it makes sense that they might want a bánh mì while shopping...
...except that the aforementioned bánh mì is eight dollars. That's not a misprint; the "local flavor sandwiches", which give you the choice of a steak bánh mì or a vegan bánh mì, are $7.99--plus tax if you eat it on the premises.
Let's put this in perspective. A ten-inch bánh mì at Banh Mi Cho Cu costs $2. For that price, you could have exactly an inch and a half of this Whole Foods creation.
Banh Mi Che Cali, with outposts just a few minutes up Bolsa or down the 405, offers $2.25 bánh mì with a buy-two-get-one-free offer. This means that for $16, you could buy two Whole Foods bánh mì; for $18, you could buy a dozen from Banh Mi Che Cali.
Before getting to the sandwich itself, let's review what a bánh mì is. It's a length of bread (either baguette or a crusty roll), spread with garlic mayonnaise, pickled shredded daikon radish and carrots, cilantro and chile peppers. The customer picks the filling--grilled pork and beef are common, as are Vietnamese cold cuts such as white pork roll or head cheese. Pâté is a popular choice, and marinated fried tofu or vegan cold cuts are commonly sold.
There are variations on bánh mì: some feature soy sauce or Maggi seasoning, some add herbs besides cilantro, and some add cucumbers for crunch, but this all fits comfortably within the universe of bánh mì ingredients.
Then there's the Whole Foods bánh mì.
A pre-cut, six-inch length of baguette was split open; garlic paste was spread on it. A large handful (probably a quarter of a cup, packed) of shredded cilantro was pressed into the garlic; five or six mint leaves were place on top. Since the steak was unavailable--is there no meat counter at Whole Foods?--a large pile of shaved chicken breast was mounded on top, and the sandwich was closed, cut and wrapped. Other than the substitution of the meat, this was exactly what was written up on the board.This bánh mì--this eight dollar monument to cultural reductivism--was absolutely revolting. The thin spread of garlic had no chance against the pile of nearly unseasoned chicken. The herbs just contributed to the dryness in the mouth. There was no tang or sweetness (that would have come from the pickled vegetables), no heat (the chiles) and no moisture (garlic mayonnaise).
Did anyone from Whole Foods actually bother to eat a bánh mì during the design phase of the sandwich menu? Did they design this by looking at recipes on the Internet? A quarter of a mile away, on the corner of Beach and McFadden, there are not one, but two bánh mì shops. One of them is Lee's Sandwiches, and while I'm not a big fan of Lee's bánh mì, they're at least a respectable stab at the genre and a comfortable place for non-Vietnamese to make their first forays into the sandwich.
The sandwich counter has problems beyond its cultural incompetence: no eggplants were harmed in the making of my wife's eggplant muffaletta. $6.99 bought her a round of olive bread (a substitution on her part) with olive spread, a great deal of spinach, and some roasted red bell peppers. That was it. It seems like misguided appropriations of others' cultures aren't limited to Southeast Asia.
Given the quality of what I had--deli-meat chicken and ten cents' worth of herbs--the price tag is insulting. Even the overpriced Nom Nom Truck only charged $5 during their brief stint in Orange County at the OC Foodie Fest, and they know how to dress a Vietnamese sandwich. Worse yet, had I ordered the same sandwich from the "build-your-own" menu, it would have been $6.99--not that that's any bargain, but it adds to the feeling of being ripped off.
Just for comparison's sake, I went to OC Poultry and Rotisserie near my house in Anaheim and bought a bánh mì with organic, local chicken and a locally-made baguette, just to show you the comparison.
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It's more or less the same amount of chicken, but marinated, rubbed with herbs and roasted. It's put onto a ten-inch baguette (made in the Vietnamese style, with a measure of rice flour in the dough to lighten the crumb) and dressed with a tangy garlic mayonnaise, thin-shredded pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro still on the stalk, cucumbers and sliced jalapeño chiles. It is an outstanding example of the bánh mì gà, and it costs $2.85.
For shame, Whole Foods. Take that shambles of a sandwich off your menu until you can do it right.