I defaulted to the 800 pound gorilla of banh mi, Lee's Sandwiches, for my Vietnamese sandwich fix, which told me that FDH syndrome had set in. Fat, dumb and happy, I stopped seeking out alternatives even before I knew what they were. So I began my banh mi crawl in earnest a couple weeks ago and have since hit a half dozen places other than Lee's to discover what else is out there.
There's plenty to like about Lee's. The location on the corner of Brookhurst & Westminster is open 24/7. Hot baguettes come out of the oven around the clock. Fresh bread counts for alot; in fact, it overcomes the merely ok fillings served at Lee's. There's no other banh mi in town at midnight, so there's always a place in my heart and stomach for Lee's. But what about all the mom and pop shops around Westminster?
I've found wide swings in the quality of bread around Little Saigon. Banh mi is all about the bread for me, just like pizza is all about its crust. The trio of bread, meat, and schmear (the Vietnamese term for pickles & spread ; P) is fronted by the baguette. Bread is the first thing that you see and taste. It sets the point to the meat's counterpoint backed with the syncopated backbeat of the various spreads or sauces used in banh mi. If you want to front a three piece band, don't expect to hide behind your sidemen. There is no room for slack in a three piece. Ideally, I seek a banh mi constructed from exceptional bread and filled with top notch meats and garni. The Medeski, Martin & Wood of sandwiches. The Emerson, Lake & Palmer of sandwiches. The McLaughlin, Di Meola & De Lucia or The Reverend Horton Heat of sandwiches.
I liked The Green Knight's post on baguettes from a few weeks ago, the link is below. It sounds like the Knight's baguette context is more for eating out of hand rather than their use in a sandwich, but I appreciate his knowledge of the matter, to which I'll add my ramblings. In an oversimplified view, there's two ends of the baguette spectrum: a rustic sourdough type that's baked really dark and has a bulletproof crust. The crust will have slashes cut into it that will spring outward during baking and form "ears" that stand away from the loaf. The ears will be hard and sharp, and can pierce your hard palate like a 12/0 fishhook if you aren't careful. Jet Li could use a loaf like this to dispatch a squad of lesser assassins. The interior has lots of voids of varying size and a crumb that's gelatinized from a long slow rise so it's closer to translucent than white.
A rustic loaf like this is great for tearing into bits and eating with a wad of Normandy butter. Not so great to make a big sandwich with, unless you're able to unhinge your jaw and swallow a porcupine whole.
Better for sandwiches, IMO, is the baguette characterized by a crispy, shatteringly thin crust and a white, soft interior marked by tiny, even holes. This type is made from a commercial yeast, but may get a boost from a prefermenting starter, either a poolish or pate fermentee. The starter will contribute a richer, wheaty flavor and chewy texture, and help to give the exterior character. By character, I mean a darker color than is otherwise possible in such a lean dough, and thousands of tiny bubbles that blister the surface of the crust. Ideally, this type of baguette may also have prominent ears. Baked in a steam injected oven, the crust forms a characteristic shell of nut brown crispness not possible in a dry oven. No crisp crust? That's a hero roll, not a baguette.
About the fillings - banh mi comes in many varieties but every shop has their version of banh mi thit nuong (roast pork) and banh mi ga (chicken). I am sampling the quality of these fundamentals before I assess the combination sandwiches, where other ingredients (cold cuts, pate, strongly flavored sauces, etc) can cover up the quality of the basics. As with the bread, I've found huge swings in quality (style?) of the meats from store to store.
With my ideal thus defined, I continue round 1 of my banh mi crawl. Since I've only made one pass through each shop, I will reserve my sandwich comments until I've made a couple more visits at each. Finding bakeries at every turn, this banh mi crawl is a much bigger task than I originally thought. Stay tuned, hounds.