Your typical American drives past Bánh Mì Chợ Củ and thinks it's an acupuncture parlor, or a travel agency, or a grocery store.
Your typical American doesn't enquire deeply into the restaurant recommendations of his Vietnamese co-workers. Your typical American, when hearing a Vietnamese sandwich being lauded in Vietnamese between two Vietnamese people, does not break in with "WHERE DO I GET THAT??"
Fortunately for my palate, I am not a typical American. Yes, I'm overweight. Yes, I talk too loudly. Yes, I drive my car rather than taking a long, overwrought bus route. But I love banh mi. LOVE them. And will drive a long way to get them, if needed -- except that, happily, I live near Little Saigon, and my office (well, one of them anyway) is near Little Saigon.
I collected up a courageous, non-Vietnamese co-worker, explained that we were going someplace like Lee's but hopefully better, and we headed out the 22 to Banh Mi Cho Cu (N.B.: copy/paste is not working well for me here, and I'm not going through the effort of all those diacritics again, sorry... refer to the first paragraph for the "real" name in Vietnamese, since that's what's on the sign). We walked in, and I saw the messy piles of sweets, the loosely-covered tray of cha lua, the enormous pile of pickled vegetables, and I knew it was "right", like Banh Mi Che Cali is right, and like Lee's is NOT right.
"Mmmmm... hold on," says the woman behind the counter, and goes to get someone with better English.
"Mot banh mi thit nuong, mot banh mi xiu mai, mot chen ca phe sua da, mot phan goi cuon," said I, forestalling the dreaded translator and the even more dreaded "maybe you like turkey sandwich. (One sandwich with grilled pork, one with pork meatballs, one cup of iced Vietnamese coffee, one order of summer rolls, by the way, for those playing along at home.)
After the usual exclamations about how the fat white guy speaks Vietnamese, how come, did I live in Viet Nam, etc., the sandwiches came up. $1.50 each, plus $1.00 for the coffee and $3.00 for the rolls (three huge rolls in an order, though).
We drove the food back to the office, but I tucked into the coffee before I even got out of the parking lot. It was EXCELLENT. My only complaint is that they should use crushed ice so that it becomes like Vietnamese coffee granita -- always my favourite part of ca phe sua da, getting to prolong the experience through a couple of hours as the ice melts.
We took over a conference room, laid out our swag, and dug in.
The xiu mai were still hot -- not warm, HOT -- which speaks well for the sanitation standard of the place. I bit into the sandwich and -- wow. Just -- wow. The bread was crunch on the outside, soft but just slightly gluten-y on the inside. The seasoning was just right, the cilantro and the vegetables in good proportion, the chile pepper properly spicy. And the xiu mai -- oh god. I've never had such juicy xiu mai. Seriously, the juice ran down my chin. The cilantro was stalky, but that's a personal preference thing, not a flaw in the sandwich.
The grilled pork wafted lemongrass scent through the whole room. It looked delectable. I wanted to have some but by the time I thought to ask, Courageous Non-Vietnamese Co-Worker had downed the sandwich and was looking at the summer rolls.
"What's in 'em?"
"Cooked pork, cooked shrimp, herbs and lettuce. Wrapped in rice paper, with peanut sauce."
The rolls were very good -- not necessarily better than elsewhere, but very tasty and with some obviously Vietnamese herbs in there (rau ram, for example).
These were the best banh mi I've ever eaten. I cut my banh mi teeth on Saigon Sandwich in the Tenderloin of SF, which might be the best banh mi in that city. I've been to Mr. Baguette, Top Baguette, Tip Top Sandwiches, Saigon Sandwich, Ba Le, Banh Mi Che Cali, Paris Baguette, and of course Lee's, down here, and this just blew them all straight out of the water.
You HAVE to go. It is an imperative. And, at $1.50 per sandwich, it's one of the better banh mi deals out there. There are no frills, simply wonderful sandwiches.
Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery
14520 Magnolia St, Westminster, CA 92683