Thanks to the likes of Jonathan Gold, Gustavo Arellano, and the countless food sages of Chowhound.com, most people are now well acquainted with the banh mi -- the Vietnamese sandwich made with a crusty French roll and filled with meats from all manner of creatures which swim, graze and cluck.
The undisputed mecca of all things banh mi in America is in Orange County's Little Saigon, which I am blessed to live near. There, amidst the chaos of Bolsa Avenue, one can't drive two feet without spotting a banh mi shop. The sandwiches at these places can vary from mediocre to great, with the best coming from the shops that bake their bread in-house.
And what bakers they are. The baguettes churned out by some of these Little Saigon mom-and-pops, I dare say, can rival any produced by the best boulangeries of Paris.
But LA County's San Gabriel Valley is hot on its heels in becoming a banh mi destination of its own. One bright and shining example is Mr. Baguette in Rosemead, an eatery that's already been lauded by both Mr. Gold, the LA Times and Mr. California's Gold himself, Huell Howser since its opening four years ago. And yes, the baguettes come out hot and fresh from their own ovens.
These long and golden loaves exhibit a crackly, crumbly crust and a soft pillowy interior. It's baked in perfect form and lovely when eaten with just a slathering of butter. But don't stop there. The folks at Mr. Baguette pride themselves in offering a dizzying variety of fillings (over 58 permutations) to transform their baguette into a banh mi -- a sandwich that best demonstrates what good things can happen when Asian flavors meets European.
As I placed my order, I took in the surroundings -- the store gleamed with glass and neon, and was as sleek as a new car showroom. This was definitely a far cry from the worn-out grime of some joints in Westminster.
Mr. Baguette, it seems, is the rare example of a mom-and-pop which operates with the efficiency, organization, and cleanliness of a corporate franchise, without losing the soul being a family-run establishment.
In the back, a busy staff of uniformed women in white hats assembles the banh mi, which comes in two primary styles; traditional (with cilantro sprigs and daikon/carrot pickles) or Western (with lettuce and sliced tomato). For this visit I decided to try the latter.
The Grilled Chicken Sesame Sandwich ($3.95) was the first one I sunk my teeth into. For this, a baguette was stuffed full of chunked dark meat chicken morsels the size of quarters. Full of peppery flavor, the chicken was as tender as the bread was crisp. A few slices of American cheese added some tang and body. The sesame seeds, which decorated the baguette crust like jewels, provided a nutty contrast to the sandwich -- something that a McDonald's sesame seed bun could never do to its burgers.
The Smoked Bacon Sandwich ($3.75) put a new spin on the classic BLT. Yes, there's lettuce and tomato, but instead of the usual long strips of pork belly, the cooked bacon was cut into a julienne of thin match sticks. The sandwich was practically bursting with this bacon confetti, which had a smoky, briny flavor and a hearty chew like a good bacon should. But result was more bacon per square inch than your average Denny's Grand Slam Breakfast. Better consult your cardiologist before you decide to feast on this fatty and porky indulgence.
Me? I was in still in denial about the cholesterol count as my fingers greedily searched and picked up any stray pieces left behind after I polished off my sandwich.
Next was the Pork of the House ($3.75). This is one sandwich that I usually avoid, even in my favorite dives in Westminster. The reason being was that more often than not, the pork is overcooked to the point of jerky. Gnawing on such a sandwich filling can be a good workout for the jaws but was not necessarily appetizing.
I'm pleased to report that Mr. Baguette's pork was worlds away from those dry, mummified pieces of meat that I've encountered in the past. The pork here was marinated with a touch of lemongrass and sugar, and grilled to a mouth-meltingly tender and moist consistency similar to a fine filet mignon. A generous heap of it comes in each sandwich -- more than enough to satiate a hungry carnivore like myself.
If Mr. Baguette's banh mis didn't already impress me, I still had to try the pastries. And again I was pleased. Each delectable creation utilized a butter-based pastry crust that flakes and crumbles into paper thin sheets. My favorite were the Mini-Pies filled with Custard ($0.75). Just like donut holes, I ended up eating far more of these than I should have. My beer gut would have been better off if I had only eaten just one of the bigger Raisin Rolls ($1.39) or even the Strawberry Danish ($1.39).
But alas, I wasn't finished getting myself fat. To wash it all down, I tried the Avocado Smoothie ($3.25), which was a beautiful and milky green concoction of ripe, smooth avocado blended with ice cream. As it turned out, this unctuous fruit was perfect fodder for the blender, pleasing my palate with a fresh, grassy, velvety, and creamy sweetness with each sip. It's surprisingly addictive and light.
If more people gave this dessert drink a chance, they will soon appreciate the fruit that most only enjoy in guacamole. For me, it was avocado, rediscovered.
8702 Valley Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770
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