Since Gordon Wing hasnt brought his banh mi series to the South Bay, I hope this will entice him to come down to test our South Bay banh mi. Yesterday I picked up banh mi from the Lees next to SJ City Hall, then swung by Dakao a few blocks away. At each shop I took photos (below, Lees is on top) and took one big bite to gauge the bread at its peak, then brought them back to work for later.
Lees 10 inches by 2 inches section of baguette, when fresh, can be nicely crisp outside and tender-chewy inside like a real baguette baked with added steam. Yesterday at around 2:15 the neon Hot Fresh Baguettes NOW sign on the window was lit, but I didnt see any carts with trays of hot bread like I did the last time I came during the lunch rush. This time, the bread was simply chewy; last time it was crisp-tender-chewy. Last time the bread was still warm; this time, room temperature. About an hour later the bread was just plain tough.
Dakaos 7 inches by 3 inches roll is the kind with rice flour added, giving it that crispiness that results in flakes of bread crumb when you bite into the crust. Carb Lover described it perfectly (her post linked below). This is my ideal. I think it was warmed before filling. By default they remove the insides from the top half. The first bite in the shop had the perfect crisp shatter of the crust followed by a pillowy softness inside. About an hour later, the crispiness faded and inside it was still soft but slightly chewy.
I usually get thit nuong (grilled pork) as my standard measure but Gordon Wings been getting meatball so thats what I ordered. Not very familiar with this kind of meat, so I dont have much basis to go on. Lees was bland and forgettable. Dakaos had a good flavor. Neither had much meatball (the ends were bare).
Lees veggies have always been skimpy in all my past visits. Maybe the small thin size of the bread just cant hold more veggies. This time I requested extra jalapenos and wow, I got 6 times as many as last time (yes I got one paper thin slice last time). Maybe next time I should ask for extra cilantro, extra radish & carrots and extra jalapenos and it will be just right.
I like Dakaos balance of veggies, though this time they put less cilantro than usual. Carb Lover mentioned Dakaos radish and carrots are thinly sliced; I like them that way; yes it means theyre softer than thicker sliced radish and carrots, but that doesnt bother me. Atleast they have some pickled sourness unlike Lees blandness. Dakao has cucumber, yay! I must have been thinking of Saigon Sandwiches in my mind when I told Carb Lover they dont. Not much cucumber though.
Lees meatball was $2.50, Dakaos was $1.75. Lees other banh mi are $2.50 and up, plus an extra 50 cents if you want pate. About half of Dakaos banh mi are $1.75, the other half are $2.
The Bottom Line
I used to think Lees made the worst banh mi in the world, but lately I think they arent bad, just kind of ehh. And when fresh, their bread is really good. Dakaos has been consistently good for every banh mi filling I try, and I like the flakey crispiness from the rice-flour in the dough. Plus I like their mayo; it might have maggi or fish sauce in it.
In addition to the meatball banh mi I ordered a couple other items at Dakao, which I'll continue in the next post. In the photo below, Lee's is on top.