Dorian Hargrove 8:30 p.m., Dec. 12
When it's shuttered and closed for the day, Paris Bakery on El Cajon Boulevard (between Highland and 45th) looks like it's been out of business for ages. The sign needs repainting and the roll-down security gate gives the impression it might never open again. That impression bleeds away during business hours when bakers shape bread in the shops recesses and the order-by-picture menu board on the back wall broadcasts the message to the masses: banh mi!
Banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) depend on good bread for their fullest expression. Paris Bakery's bread fit the bill. The paper-thin crust yielded in spiderweb cracks at the slightest pressure from teeth or hands. The crumb inside was chewy and porous in the manner of a good baguette. The "special combination" sandwich had been spread with a thick layer of mayonnaise and the assortment of pate, cold cuts, meatloaf, and head cheese that's indicative of Vietnam's Franco-Southeast Asian culinary fusion. Lightly pickled carrots and daikon, shaved jalapeno peppers, and cilantro leaves nested on top of everything. A barbecue pork version substituted sweet, glazed pork loin for the variety of meats on the special combo.
Simple in concept, but perfected in execution, the banh mi at Paris Bakery was exemplary of the dish at its best. Other available fillings included barbecue chicken, sardines, and a series of ham and other sliced meats in various combinations. The attractive $3.25 price tag gets commuted down to $2.50 in the case of the "buy three get one free" deal that's available for the special combination sandwich only.
The bakery opens early so customers can buy that delightful sandwich bread by the loaf before the day begins in earnest.
At the far end of the storefront, near where the bakery space began, a reach in cooler held curious packages wrapped in banana leaves.
"Meat loaf," the woman behind the counter called it. "Slice and eat. It's ready."
It was the curious, spongy, dense, steamed meatloaf that's usually incorporated into banh mi at some stage of their construction. A loaf is five dollars and it's perfectly good sliced and eaten on bread with a little Sriracha sauce or scrambled up with some eggs and had for breakfast.
Paris also bakes some sweets. A whole tabletop display of cookies by the counter, priced for quick sales, proved too tempting to resist. The madeleines were, unfortunately, inexpertly baked. Dry and chewy, they didn't achieve the heights set by the French rolls that housed the banh mi.
Madeleines notwithstanding, Paris Bakery delivered ample amounts of charm and banh mi. A $10 lunch for four of such caliber is hard to come by.
4481 El Cajon Boulevard