In early 2007, I organized my quarterly "Quartet" dining series for my group and this time around, we focused on checking out 4 Banh Mi restaurants in February and March. The four places we visited were Mr. Baguette, Banh Mi & Che Cali, Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery & Lee's Sandwiches.
Before starting this series, I have never had banh mi before so this was definitely going to be a new culinary experience for me. I started the "Banh Mi Quartet" with Mr. Baguette in Rosemead primarily because I remembered seeing it featured on Huell Howser.
Walking into Mr. Baguette at 10:30 am, I was surprised at how busy it was. After finally getting a table with my dining buddies, we finally walked up to the counter to place our orders. When placing your banh mi orders, you have a choice of either having the pickled veggies on the side or in the sandwich. I opted for the side so that I could customize my sandwiches to my taste.
I went for the Avocado Shake and ordered two sandwiches, the Special Banh Mi with the ham and pate as well as the Smoked Bacon on the Sesame Roll. Being an avocado lover, the shake was an instant hit. It was rich, creamy and filled me with avocado love. As for the sandwiches, let's start with the Special Banh Mi.
While I liked the bread, I didn't think it was anything to write home about. It had a nice crust to it, but the inside of the bread wasn't soft enough, which disappointed me. As for the cold cuts, I wasn't that impressed. On their own, the meats were kind of bland and it was only the pickled veggies that gave the sandwich any flavor at all.
I actually preferred the Smoked Bacon on the Sesame Roll. Yes, it's more like a Subway sandwich in that it's a bigger roll and it comes with lettuce and tomato, but the bread was really good. In fact, in this scenario, I just liked this bread better than the more traditional Vietnamese banh mi bread of the other sandwich. Of course, it didn't hurt that the main ingredient was bacon in all its fatty, smoky goodness. I think it just may be true that everything tastes good with bacon.
Based on my meal there, I'd probably go back to Mr. Baguette again. I would definitely like to try a different banh mi from the cold cuts as a point of comparison. If nothing else, there's still that avocado milkshake to look forward to. Mmmm.mmm...good!
Second on the rotation was Banh Mi & Che Cali at the Rosemead location. Before I even start talking about their banh mi, I have to give kudos for what I consider are the best spring rolls I’ve ever had. The vegetables were extremely fresh but what stood out for me was the crunch aspect of these rolls, which I think was pieces of a deep-fried spring roll wrapper, but I’m not completely sure. Whatever it was, it added a different dimension in flavor which was comprised of a little salty and a little sweet.
Ok, let’s get back to the banh mi. Compared to Mr. Baguette, the bread at Banh Mi & Che Cali was definitely superior. For my visit there, I only had one sandwich, a BBQ Pork Banh Mi. The bread was outstanding - crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, just the way I envisioned what a French baguette roll should be like. As for the BBQ pork, it was absolutely delicious. Both sweet and a little smoky, the flavor of the pork was dancing up and down my taste buds. The pickled vegetables made the sandwich that much better and by the way, these veggies can also be ordered on the side or not. Based on that one sandwich alone, I’d go back to Banh Mi & Che Cali in a heartbeat, but the desserts that were also offered by this restaurant sealed the deal.
The Che part of the Banh Mi & Che Cali restaurant name is a general term is for a Vietnamese sweet dish or dessert. Che is usually soupy and is generally served with sweetened coconut milk and ingredients will include any combo of starches, fruits and/or jellies. We went to town and sampled 7 different kinds of Che. One of my favorites was the Che Thai, a chilled coconut milk drink flavored with pandan and featuring jackfruit, longan and agar-agar. This was an extremely refreshing dessert drink. I also really liked the sticky rice balls in the ginger syrup. Overall, Banh Mi & Che Cali is a banh mi keeper, but these wonderful desserts really stepped up its appeal even more.
After my great dining experience at Banh Mi & Che Cali, I didn’t think it could get any better, but it did and that came in the form of Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery in Westminster. The only downside is that it’s a take-out place, but on a pretty day, the park across the street is a wonderful substitute for a sit down restaurant. Walking into Banh Mi Cho Cu, it's quite apparent that it's a hopping place. Throughout our stay, there was a constant hustle and bustle of people coming in and out ordering their food. Other than banh mi, you’ll also see the variety of Vietnamese foods for sale other than the banh mi, which explains this small shop's popularity. From cold wrapped dishes to various filled hot pastries, you certainly had your pick. But do you know what really made me smile? The price of the banh mi sandwiches.
Up to this point, the sandwiches at Lee’s and Banh Mi & Che Cali were between $2.25 to a little over $3.00 in some cases. At Cho Cu Bakery, the prices were a steal at $1.25 and $1.50. Wow, my jaw almost dropped. I’ve heard that banh mi sandwiches were supposed to be around that range, but the first two restaurants I visited didn’t live up to that at all.
Other than the banh mi sandwiches, we all actually ordered some of the other wrapped items to share. There were definite hits and misses. Of all the ones we tried, I did like the more straightforward rice topped with dried fish, especially with soy sauce poured on top the best. The rice was a little sweet, but it really balanced well with the saltiness of both the fish and the soy sauce. Some of the other food items were just too glutinous for my taste.
So enough of the lolly-gaggling, let’s talk banh mi. I have to say that while I loved the banh mi at Banh Mi & Che Cali, I love the banh mi even more at Cho Cu Bakery. An intriguing thing to note about their exceptional bread is that it seemed hollowed inside, which meant that the baguette actually "cups" the filling as opposed to the filling just lying flat against the bread and falling out. With each bite, you get the delicious light-crispy-crusty bread, the delicious filling and the pickled vegetables all at one time. Now that's tasty efficiency.
A friend and I shared two sandwiches, the BBQ Pork Banh Mi and the Pork Meatball Banh Mi. As mentioned already, I thought the bread was absolutely wonderful and thankfully, the fillings were just as amazing. The bbq pork was charred to the point that it looked like beef jerky, but wow, the meat was tender, moist and had an intense caramelized flavor that just did it for me. As for the meatballs, my only complaint was that I didn't get enough of them, but what I did get was juicy and yummy.
I also really enjoyed the addition of sliced cucumbers to the veggie mix because they added refreshing notes to the overall flavor of both my banh mi sandwiches. One thing to note is that unlike Mr. Baguette or Banh Mi & Che Cali, there was no option to have the veggies on the side at Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery. My only regret about this tiny bakery all the way in Westminster is that it's so darn far from where I live, but then, what are gas prices and the 40+ miles I'd have to drive for even just a bite of one of their spectacular sandwiches. I wish I had one in front of me right now. (big sigh)
To end this "Banh Mi Quartet" series, Lee's Sandwiches was our last stop. Lee's has been around for a long time and I think it's fair to say that by virtue of having stores that have multiplied like bunnies all over the US; they've done a great job introducing banh mi to the mainstream public. Given their place in banh mi "history", I was curious to see how what the banh mi sandwiches would taste like from what many consider as the "McDonald's" of banh mi sandwich shops (and not necessarily in a positive way).
So in anticipation, I ordered a Grilled Pork Banh Mi and a Sardine Banh Mi. Like Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery, the veggies were not offered on the side, but came with the sandwiches. When my sandwiches arrived, I gravitated towards the Grilled Pork Banh Mi first. In taking the first bite, one thing I noticed right away was the bread and that wasn't a good thing. I was very disappointed in Lee's baguette.
It was sweet in a weird un-bread-like sort of way and the texture was chewy. Sweet and chewy is okay with a caramel candy, but not bread. I wouldn't say it was horrible but with recent memories of Cho Cu Bakery still floating in my mind, it's hard not to compare the two and find Lee's bread lacking.
The grilled pork filling was okay, although it reminded me of Chinese pork in that it erred on the sweeter side. "Sweet" bread and now a "sweet" filling? This combination wasn't quite working for me. Now the Sardine Banh Mi was fairly successful. I think the saltiness of the sardines cancelled out some of the sweetness of the bread and that's why I enjoyed it more.
In general, it was really the bread that brought everything down for me. The meat fillings, though not spectacular, were fine, but a sandwich without good bread is pretty much worthless. You might as well just take the filling, put it in a bowl, add lettuce and dressing and just make a salad out of it. I wouldn't say that I'd never go into a Lee's Sandwich shop ever again, but if I were in a part of the country where Lee's was the only place I could get a banh mi, I'd make the walk inside. Sometimes a burger just doesn't cut it.
Overall, this was a wonderful "Quartet." It was a great way to compare similar foods and to see how much the same or different they are from each other and the same goes for the 4 restaurants where we did our "Banh Mi" tastings in early 2007. In the end, what I really learned is that the baguette makes the "banh mi" and based on that, you'll definitely see me returning to Banh Mi & Che Cali and maybe, even making the drive to Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery whenever I need a Vietnamese hoagie fix.
8702 Valley Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770
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Banh Mi & Che Cali
8450 Valley Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770
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Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery
14520 Magnolia Street Suite B
Westminster, CA 92683
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8779 East Valley Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770
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