Decades ago, I discovered the foodstuff that has made me return to Little Saigon week after week: the bánh mì sandwich. It is nothing short of a miracle. And I’m not being hyperbolic here. If Philly is known for its iconic cheesesteaks, the bánh mì should be the sandwich that defines our region.
Where else but here, in the largest Vietnamese enclave outside Vietnam, could you find the best charcuterie stuffed inside the freshest baguette alongside jalapeños, cilantro, homemade mayo, pâté, pickled carrots and daikon. And in Little Saigon, the bánh mì happens to be one of the best food bargains in the county, if not the state. At most food-to-go shops, you can get one for less than a Subway sub. The Bánh Mì Che Cali chain, in particular, still runs a buy-two-get-one-free promotion that ultimately translates to $2.16 per sandwich.
Bánh Mì Che Cali, of course, is not the only place that does a great bánh mì in Little Saigon. There are others that are just as old school, with orders scribbled on scraps of paper, an ancient cash register and grimy surroundings. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the ultra-slick Lee’s Sandwiches, which can always be counted on for being bright, big and corporate. Filling out the rest of the landscape are the mom-and-pops, including the new Bao-N-Baguette, which boasts better customer service than Bánh Mì Che Cali but doesn’t feel as sterile as Lee’s.
If there’s one thing Bao-N-Baguette seems to do differently, it’s that it aims to make the bánh mì-buying process more approachable for the Panera Bread crowd. The restaurant feels warm and welcoming. There’s lots of wood paneling and brown brick. And when you start considering which bánh mì to get, you can inspect what’s actually going to go into your sandwich before you order. All the meats and protein are laid out on single serving trays behind a glass case. The sliced pork belly is nearly all white; the chicken looks to be all dark meat; and the “combination” alternates between slices of headcheese, ham and pork roll. For the uninitiated, it takes the mystery out of the equation.
Once the protein is picked, the baguette is briefly heated in a toaster and split open, and then the sandwich is assembled with all the trimmings in front of you, not unlike at Subway.
Unique to this place is the xiu mai bánh mì, which isn’t actually a sandwich. It’s a single, gigantic meatball swimming in a light sauce made of crushed tomatoes that’s garnished with cilantro sprigs, shaved scallions and sliced jalapeños. The helium-light baguette comes on the side for you to tear into pieces, dip into the bowl, and eat in concert with that soft, almost pudding-like pork orb. Near the center of it, you discover a hidden hard-boiled quail egg.
Bánh baos—the Vietnamese version of meat-stuffed Chinese steamed buns that rarely gets top billing in Little Saigon—get the attention they deserve here. There are five in total: Two are filled with a silken pork mousse textured with crunchy wood ear mushrooms and onions. One is embedded with a boiled quail egg; the other, the yolk from a salted egg. The yolk lent such an indispensable richness and funk to it that I didn’t mind the extra cholesterol.
Then there are the steamed bun sliders, which are latter-day inventions that combine the vegetable fillings of a bánh mì and the fluffy white steamed bread of a bánh bao. I’ve seen something similar at Garden Grove’s Baos Hog, which uses a clamshell-shaped bread for its version. Here, a whole bao bun is split in half. The rest of its construction is as you’d expect. Stacks of thick-sliced beef brisket teeters in one of the most popular items: the pho brisket slider. Since the meat is steeped in an anise-scented broth and the bread gets smeared with hoisin and Sriracha, the slider ends up tasting like something you fish out from a bowl of pho.
Perhaps the most decadent thing you can get at Bao-N-Baguette is the braised-pork-belly steamed bun slider. The belly, thick and wiggly with the fat turned to jelly, gives Momofuku’s famed pork buns a run for their money—and for only half the price.
The rest of Bao-N-Baguette’s menu is rounded out with more tea and juice drinks than I care to name, plus baked goods such as pâté chaud (pockets of flaky puff pastry filled with pork and liver). But just as at all of Little Saigon’s food-to-go shops, it’s about the bánh mì, which I’ll gladly put up against all the Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteaks Philadelphia has to offer.
Bao-N-Baguette, 16039 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley, (714) 617-5611; www.baonbaguette.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 5:30 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Bánh mìs, $3.50-$6.50; baos, $1.50-$1.75; steamed bun sliders, $2.95-$3.95. No alcohol.
Edwin Goei was born on the island of Java, grew up in La Habra, studied in Irvine, and eats everywhere. Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, he went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.