You could say that the missus and I were stalking the banh mi lady through the streets of Hanoi. Winding through unfamiliar enclaves and avenues, she was easy to spot with the tall wicker basket of fragrant bread balanced on her head. In the end, just by coincidence, we’d often arrive at a banh mi stand a few minutes after a delivery of fresh bread and be treated to a wonderfully light baguette smeared with a trace of butter and some pâté, topped with various cuts of meat and thinly sliced pickled vegetables.
None of the banh mi (what my Vietnamese friends call the standard seven-inch French-influenced baguette; they call the longer, thinner bread a “baguette” — confusing enough?) in the States quite measures up to what we had in Vietnam. There, this product of French colonialism is light and airy, more flaky than crusty. You can squeeze almost all the air out of the bread, resulting in an explosion of crust, and then, when you let go, you can watch the bread return to a semblance of its original form.
I’m not sure if it’s a combination of rice flour, environment, a spray of some liquid while the bread is baking (a good friend mentioned this as a possibility), or a specialized secret handshake/voodoo dance that makes this bread different, but the closest I’ve come to proper Vietnam-style bread in California is at a small bakery in Westminster called Cho Cu Bakery that my good friend Beach took me to several years back. Here, in San Diego, only a few shops bake their own bread, while most seem to get their banh mi from one of two suppliers: West Coast–based wholesale Le Chef Bakery or Paris Bakery on El Cajon Boulevard. Paris also makes banh mi sandwiches.
Two bakers supplying most of the banh mi in San Diego should make for a homogenous product, right? Not quite. Even though Vietnamese sandwiches are pretty simple (with most of the same ingredients), I’ve noticed that — from the choice of meats to how the bread is toasted — each shop does it differently.
Last summer, I realized that there were three shops doing banh mi in a single strip mall on the corner of Black Mountain Road and Mira Mesa Boulevard. And earlier this year, while munching away on a sandwich at a newer shop, I realized that the stretch of Mira Mesa Boulevard from just before Black Mountain Road to Sorrento Plaza Shopping Center — a distance of about three miles — was home to at least seven banh mi shops. This presented an irresistible opportunity.
I got on the phone and put together my Banh Mi Brigade. Peter and John L. are Vietnamese. They run two sandwich shops (not the banh mi kind); for this outing, Peter’s lovely wife Angela is fantastic at keeping us organized. Tammy C. is also Vietnamese, raised in the City Heights area, home to some of my favorite banh mi shops. Tammy’s husband Mr. C. is always up for anything.
The rules were simple: We’d break up into teams and purchase a dac biet (literally, the “house special”) from each of the seven shops, meet at a designated area, divide up the sandwiches, and have at it. In the end, we’d list the sandwiches from our favorite to the one we’d least enjoyed.
To my surprise, the top two picks were unanimous. Those sandwiches were also two of the less expensive and smaller of the banh mi we sampled, verifying my long-held suspicion that proportion of ingredients trumps quantity when it comes to banh mi; after all, this is not a monstrous “fresser” from D.Z. Akin’s.
Cali Baguette Express, with their house-baked bread — light and slightly flaky — had the advantage. It also didn’t hurt that, at three bucks, their sandwich was the cheapest. They use the longer “baguette” for their banh mi, and though the bread wasn’t toasted, it was still warm and recently baked. All the ingredients, from the cha lua (defatted pork sausage) to the BBQ pork to the thin slice of Vietnamese head cheese, worked well together. Cali Baguette Express’s El Cajon Boulevard location is a favorite of my wife’s, and I noticed no drop-off here. I’ll probably be by for a banh mi trung (fried-egg sandwich) soon.
The other top pick was the banh mi from Express Deli, the steam-tray fast-food stand inside Lucky Seafood Market. The meat, a combination of very thin Vietnamese jamon, head cheese, and cha lua went well with the mild smear of pâté. The pickled carrots and daikon are julienned into thin, well-flavored strips. There is a little “jalapeño roulette” going on, so be careful of hidden slices of pepper. The gals working here know how to toast their bread, as it was not too hard but still warm and crisp. The sandwich did take a while; the two toaster ovens in the joint were working overtime.
Two other shops making banh mi are worth mentioning. If you want a sandwich with a bit more heft, Tan Ky Mi Gia, the noodle shop in the same strip mall as Lucky Seafood, makes perhaps the most stuffed banh mi. It’s also the most expensive. They tend to not toast their bread, and the veggies are not pickled enough.
I had thought that Sorrento European Bakery would be among the top two — I’ve had some pretty decent banh mi there. But on this day, the bread was severely stale, and the generous amount of pâté tasted bland. I’m hoping this is just a blip on the banh mi radar.
Dusting the crumbs from our clothes after devouring seven sandwiches, we looked at each other and wondered, What next? The answer was easy: lunch! ■
9326 Mira Mesa Boulevard (inside Lucky Seafood Market)
Cali Baguette Express
9225 Mira Mesa Boulevard, #106
Tan Ky Mi Gia
9330 Mira Mesa Boulevard
Sorrento European Bakery
6755 Mira Mesa Boulevard, #117 (in the Sorrento Plaza Shopping Center)