Tasty Sandwiches: The Last Bánh Mì Store?

Is the era of bánh mì over? A decade ago, Vietnamese sandwich shops were popping up all over Little Saigon, as the pioneering Lee's Sandwiches spread across Southern California to become almost as ubiquitous as Original Tommy's. But now, it seems every other new Vietnamese-owned restaurant is a crawfish house, and Vietnamese-American chefs want to open a dessert place, a taco shop—anything but a bánh mì.

Part of it is economics: What used to cost $1.50 not even a decade ago is nowadays around $4—still a good deal, but no longer what made bánh mìs the ultimate po'boy. The other important factor, however, is the baguette-based sammy just never evolved. No Roy Choi or Hop Phan ever bothered to play with it, rendering it about as cool as baked Alaska. But that's what I've always loved about them—that I can go to nearly any bánh mì store and know what's on the menu without even looking. At the appropriately named Tasty Sandwiches, all the classics are here—grilled pork, chicken, beef, and a spectacular salmon type that Tasty pioneered and dozens of other shops have tried to copy, to no avail.

Indeed, the way bánh mì stores have survived is to follow the Tasty Sandwiches way. Despite that name, bánh mìs are actually an afterthought; Tasty also offers a couple of rice dishes and salads. But back to the salmon: It is everything wonderful with Vietnamese cooking. Tart, hearty, pungent, savory and even a hint of sweet, it'll have all the omega 3s you'll ever need, but with actual flavor and verve. The base for everything, of course, is the great baguettes: strong enough to lay down a bunt, yet fluffy enough inside to qualify as cotton candy.

Despite all this, I just don't see bánh mì shops getting any more popular. The ironic thing, of course, is that the sandwiches are spreading across the country even as they fall out of favor locally. My sad prediction: Bánh mìs are going to become the hard-shell tacos of Vietnamese food, a former phenomenon reduced to fast-food irrelevancy. So enjoy those bánh mìs at Tasty Sandwiches, folks, because the next stop is Subway. . . .

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