This is a topic that is always on the boards, and chowhound is so useful to me I thought I would try to add my two cents and be useful to someone else. Many people discuss Vietnamese sandwiches (Banh Mi) in relation to some unknown ideal sandwich. I don’t think I know what a truly authentic or ideal sandwich would be, so I’m going to discuss all the ones I have in relation to an average sandwich with the usual ingredients, while trying to highlight some of the little differences between each place. Please feel free to chime in- I think this can be a useful clearing house for info on my fave two dollar snack in the world
So, to begin: here are the usual ingredients:
Crusty French baguette
Combos of Vietnamese coldcuts, smear of pate or Vietnamese bologna
Meatball (more like loose, seasoned ground meat, pretty popular)
Grilled pork or chicken.
SPECIAL NOTE: If the place has grilled pork AND BBQ pork, the grilled will most likely be sliced, marinated, grilled pork and the BBQ will be thicker slices of pink colored Chinese BBQ style pork, many times with a generous portion of fat. If the place only has “grilled” or “BBQ” you just don’t know. I will try to point out the differences.
Pickled daikon and carrot salad mix, can be different proportions
English cucumber (not all places have cucumber)
Sliced jalapenos or other hot pepper- always variable in heat, you just don’t know how hot they will be, it’s part of the fun!
Some sort of sauce, or mayo, or possibly buttered bun
I will mostly talk about grilled pork and BBQ pork sandwiches (those are my usual). Ranked in order of preference, but mine may be different than yours, and please throw your faves on the list, and note where I am mistaken about offerings.
1) Cam Huong in Oakland Chinatown (between 9 and 10th on Webster I believe)
The champion. Cam Huong has a nice crusty, warm baguette. They serve their sandwiches with a sort of mayo (I think it is Japanese Kewpie mayo) that is yellower than usual mayo. They have both grilled pork and BBQ pork on the menu I believe. The grilled pork is nicely marinated, not overly sweet, good amount of savory flavor. They also have a grilled beef-onion roll special sandwich at the Oakland Chinatown location.
Keys: they scoop out some bread to make the sandwich not too bready and don’t skimp on ingredients. I would say that Cam Huong has the most balanced combo of meat and veggies. There is more daikon than carrot in their pickled mix, so the sandwiches have some crunch.
Possible drawbacks: some may claim too much mayo, but this seems to be variable and hasn’t been a problem for me.
Warning: The heat on the peppers is variable, and I can’t explain it, but it always seems that the hot peppers migrate to the last third of the sandwich, meaning I will have somehow safely eaten huge slices of pepper on the first two thirds with little or no effect, but then WHAM. So what I am saying is your second sandwich will definitely taste different than your first!
2) Kim’s Sandwiches in San Jose (in strip mall next to Lion Supermarket at Tully and King Roads)
Kim’s didn’t have a warmed baguette, but was nice and crusty. They only had “BBQ Pork” for the pork option and it happens to be the Chinese style pink colored pork. The one I had was excellent because it had less fat than they can come with when served this way, but a strong burst of 5-spice flavor. Kim’s serves theirs with a Kewpie-style mayo. I can’t remember about the cucumber, but more daikon than carrot in the pickle mix, so crunchy.
Other things of note: Just like Cam Huong and most of these places, there are Vietnamese deli offerings. Kim’s had some good fresh rolls and also offered a big pre-made Papaya salad with beef jerky and Thai basil. I have described the restaurant version of this salad served at Vung Tau II in Milpitas here:
Kim’s dressing is similar to Vung Tau’s but spicier. I have thought long and hard about the secret ingredient, and am now convinced it is Kecap Manis (soy sauce sweetened with palm sugar). They also had some tasty mini fried spring rolls that we tried. I found the counter service to be quite friendly as well.
3) Cam Huong (Alvarado Road in Union City)
All the same ingredients as the Chinatown location, but not quite as good. They overload the sandwiches with daikon (I love the stuff, it is just less balanced).
4) Saigon Sandiwch (Larkin, below Ellis in the Tenderloin)
An old standby, but possible hit or miss these days. I have been 2-3 times and they have always been good. They never come quite the same way. They only have “BBQ pork” on their menu (of grilled and BBQ), but I would call what they serve “grilled pork.” Their pork seems like it has a little bit of sauce with it in addition to some mayo, plus all the usual fixings. Their baguettes are good, but less crusty than some other places (like Wrap Delight down the street) and I don’t remember them being served warm. They don’t scoop out any bread so the sandwiches here are fatter and can be more filling. The rolls are tough to judge here because one day when I was up the street getting banh mi at Baguette Express, where they also sell rolls, someone from Saigon Sandwich came up and bought a couple of bags because they had run out.
5) Baguette Express (Larking, just below Ellis in the Tenderloin)
Baguette Express makes a special note that they toast their baguettes before making the sandwich, and their longer baguettes are super crusty on the outside and nice and fluffy on the inside. Their pork is what I would call a hybrid of the usual grilled and bbq. It is more savory and less sweet than almost any other I have had, and also seems to be a little saucy. This keeps the sandwich from being too dry, but made it so I can’t remember if they have mayo on theirs. They don’t put a lot of pickled veggies on (the sign says you have to ask for them specially, but I never have, and they always come with the usual veggies). They are generous with larger slices of English cucumber, to the point that I notice the cucumber on there. The space is usually very clean and the sandwiches are larger than the usual, and the service is always good.
SPECIAL NOTE: The pictures on their menu board show all the sandwiches coming with lettuce and tomato, this is not the case. They come with the usual.
6) Huong Lan Sandwiches (Tully Rd location, just before King in San Jose)
A location of a medium-sized chain, they are also a full service Vietnamese deli. They have both grilled pork and BBQ pork on the menu. The BBQ pork is OK but is served very fatty, so can be off-putting if it is not your style. The grilled pork is quite tasty (also can be fatty), and they serve it with a fried shallot/sauce mix that is quite flavorful, and is unique on this list of places.
7) Wrap Delight (Larkin in Tenderloin)
I’ve only been here once, and most likely the reason it is this far down the list is when we went, they had just filled an order for 60 sandwiches, the result being our sandwiches seemed to have skimpy portions of meat, almost no daikon, yet a massive amount of shredded carrot and cilantro. It still tasted fine, and the bread was perfectly crusty. I believe they have a sauce with their BBQ pork (which I would call grilled) and not mayo (someone correct me if I am wrong).
8) King Eggroll (McLaughlin and Story in San Jose)
The most impressive part of this take-out/deli place was the whole roasted pigs just sitting out on the counter. They have a full menu of banh mi and I tried their grilled pork. A serving of pork was heated up in the microwave and placed on a non-warmed baguette (baked on the premises) with cool vegetables (it was like the banh mi version of a McDLT!). I would consider their grilled pork to be a good place to start for the non-initiated. Lean meat, not overly marinated, crisp vegetables, good size but fat baguettes. They also serve their banh mi (at least this one) with ground peanuts. The drawback would be that their bread, while nice and crusty on the outside, was too dense and bready on the inside.
9) Lees Sandwiches (King Road in San Jose, many other locations)
Have been to Lee’s twice and both times the sandwiches, while large, were very dry. I believe they butter their bread before toasting it slightly. Either way, there was no mayo to speak of, nor light sauce with the grilled pork, and with a baguette as large as they have, it is not very successful. All the usual veggies were there. In all seriousness, the place I wouldn’t try again, only because the ones I might go to are right next to other places I like better. I will add that they have offerings that not all other places have (I think they have a sardine that has been recommended). Once I branch out into different sandwiches, I’ll try them again, but not for the old standby.
Cam Huong (Oakland Chinatown)
1816 Tully Rd # 182
San Jose, CA 95122
Cam Huong (Union City)
32124 Alvarado Boulevard
Union City , CA 94587
560 Larkin St
San Francisco, CA 94102
668 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94101
Huong Lan Sadwiches
1655 Tully Rd
San Jose, CA 95122
1221 Story Rd
San Jose, CA 95122
2525 South King Road @ Burdette Drive
San Jose, CA 95122
Phone: (408) 274-1596
Assorted Banh mi posts:
Saigon Sandwich on Larkin in Tenderloin:
Oakland Chinatown/Cam Huong:
Baguette Express on Larkin in Tenderloin: