You have to really want banh mi. Just getting there on a Saturday is aggravating. You exit the westbound 22 at Brookhurst, turn right onto Trask, and wait... and wait... and wait... for traffic to let you through on Brookhurst.
Then you hang a quick left into the parking lot. There's a grocery store, a Cantonese restaurant, Boiling Crab, Banh Cuon Tay Ho, and a bunch of other stores. You circle the parking lot, hoping for parking. Then you circle the parking lot, hoping to find someone to vulture. You finally park, and you head for Banh Mi Che Cali... only to see the line out the door.
Welcome to a little slice of Vietnam in Orange County. While there is technically a line, in reality it's whoever gets to the front and catches the eye of the oh-so-jaded cashier first. It functions as a line but expect to be jostled. Being a large, young, agile white guy is not enough. Those eighty-year-old grandmothers? They are MEAN. They will step on your foot (including the toe you broke playing rugger the other day); they will poke you shamelessly in the ribs. When you react, they will dart past you. They have an advantage: their Vietnamese is faster than yours.
You have to know exactly what it is you want. If you need to inspect the offerings or read the signboards, hang out in the back and do it -- when you get on the line you have to order FAST, like a New Yorker. You can order in English (ignore the put-out eye-rolling that the woman with the cast in her eye gives you). Give her the money and then GET OUT OF THE WAY.
Eventually a bag will be thrust at you. It's always right. I've never had a problem.
Inside that bag... bliss. Hot baguette, made with a measure of rice flour (lightens the bread and produces more "snap" in the crust); garlic mayo; cilantro; chile peppers; pickled radish and onion strips; and your choice of filling.
Get the "dac biet" -- the house special. Try the xiu mai if they have it. Xa xiu (remember, "x" in Vietnamese has the sound of "s" in "simple"; "s" in Vietnamese has the sound of "s" in "sure") is delicious; ca moi (sardines) is also good but they sometimes have filleting issues so chew carefully.
Get back on the line; order che. When you order che, you will step to the left and point out the che you want. Some che is dry-looking -- fear not, they will add coconut milk to it. Anything green-coloured that is not obviously a bean is made of pandan, an aromatic leaf with a slightly floral taste. Anything that looks like a block of Jell-O™ is probably pudding -- orange is mango, off-white is almond. Black streaks are mushrooms (well, fungus anyway) -- this is normal and it is very tasty.
Banh mi are $2; buy two banh mi, get one free. Banh mi on longer baguettes are $2.25 and are not subject to the "mua 2 tang 1" rule. Che is $1.50 each; buy two bowls of che, get one free. Nobody buys one of anything in that store. If you do, they'll stare at you like you just arrived from Planet Myxlpltzk in a dolphin suit.
There are three tables off past the che. Don't bother. Don't EVER eat there. They're there so that the restaurant can say it has tables (this has impact on how they're treated by the government). Take it away and eat it outside. You don't want to be in that steamy, architecturally bankrupt, unbelievably loud place any longer than it takes to get those sublime sandwiches and che.
There are other branches of Banh Mi & Che Cali. The one in Rosemead, on Valley near 888 Seafood, is by far the most accessible to non-Vietnamese. (You stand a chance of being able to ask a question, you can eat inside, and there's an actual line that people respect.) The one on Bolsa and Magnolia is take-out only and there's absolutely no line whatsoever -- push your way to the front and don't be timid. Its saving grace is that the fantastic exotic-flower-and-produce market is six or seven doors west of it in the same plaza. The one on Brookhurst and McFadden is in a standalone building (maybe a former Taco Bell), is marked as Cali Bakery, and has staff so unabashedly abrupt that even I, a guy who grew up in New Jersey and lived in New York, am sometimes taken aback. Cali Bakery also has the worst housekeeping of the branches -- fight the traffic and the parking for the one further north on Brookhurst.
Is it a bit aggravating? Yes, it is. But it's so, so worth it.
Banh Mi & Che Cali Bakery
8948 Bolsa Ave, Westminster, CA 92683
Banh Mi Che Cali Bakery
13838 Brookhurst St, Garden Grove, CA 92843
Banh Mi & Che Cali
647 W Valley Blvd, Alhambra, CA 91803
Banh Mi & Che Cali Bakery - duplicate
15551 Brookhurst St, Westminster, CA
Banh Mi & Che Cali
8450 Valley Blvd, Rosemead, CA 91770