4644 El Cajon Boulevard #111, City Heights
As of last summer, the stretch of El Cajon Blvd. between Highland Avenue and Euclid is officially known as Little Saigon. Unofficially, it's long been known as the best place to go in search of Vietnamese specialties like gỏi cuốn (salad rolls), phở and bánh mì.
It's the bánh mì I've been looking for. The multicultural sandwich combines Asian flavors with French sandwich-making — sort of a colonially engendered fusion that may best be seen as the delicious silver lining of some pretty messed up times.
I don't know how to properly pronounce Á Châu, but if it comes out sounding like a sneeze you're probably saying it wrong. It's a hole-in-the-wall sandwich counter fronting a dingy-looking little shopping strip a little west of Euclid. It offers sandwiches to go, with a bit of cafeteria-style stews and side dishes.
You can eat in if you like, but the tables and plastic swivel chairs are bolted down so close together that comfort is a distant dream at best. I'd recommend ordering your sandwiches to-go, as intended, and add a couple of 50-cent egg rolls to eat while you wait. They're small, crispy and addictively good. Go ahead, order a couple more.
Back to the bánh mì _ they're topped with julienned daikon and carrots, cilantro, cucumber, mild slices of chili pepper, and mayo on a small French roll. Plus, whichever meat topping you choose, with options including ham, pork meatballs, barbecue beef and sugarcane shrimp. I settled on chicken and meat loaf with pate, and proceeded to gobble down egg rolls. They don't even need any dipping sauce.
The sandwiches come wrapped in white paper and secured by rubber bands. The rolls are fantastic, with just the right balance of crusty, fluffy and chewy. The vegetables are fresh and presumably very healthy. The chicken is alright, though its doubtful the words "free-range" or "organic" have ever been spoken here, so don't get your hopes up.
Temper your expectations for the meatloaf as well. This type of meatloaf consists of pale pink slices of processed meat, with a consistency I could only compare to thick-cut bologna. The flavor's less pungent, but it's definitely not an order for the novice eater of Vietnamese food, though it could become an acquired taste if you really wanted to bother.
Ultimately, sticking to the ham or beef nets you a better sandwich, but the real reason to come back is definitely egg rolls. The little, crispy, shredded-pork finger-food cannot be beat locally, and they fly out the door so fast Á Châu has to make bucketloads throughout the day.
Still, at under four bucks, a single bánh mì makes a great, super-cheap lunch option, and a pair gives you a chance to be gluttonous. Welcome to Little Saigon.