SF- A Tale of Two Banh Mi – Saigon Grill & Little Vietnam Café
It was the best of banh mi. It was the worst of banh mi.
The Best – Saigon Grill in ... are you ready ... Fisherman’s Wharf.
No kidding, Fisherman’s Wharf central, directly across the street from A. Sabella’s on Taylor. No kidding about the Grill part either. They have a grilling area with the flames leaping up.
I had the grilled lemongrass pork banh mi (thit nuong). I am not sure if there was enough meat in the sandwich because I kept pulling out pieces and eating them by themselves because they were so good ... thin tender slices of pork with a whisper of fat that were nicely marinated with a touch of grilled meat flavor. The meat was slightly sweet like teriyaki, but not too much.
The sandwich as a whole was excellent also. A nice crusty roll with mayo cradled pickled daikon radish and carrots, fresh cilantro and large slices of super-fresh jalapenos.
It was wonderfulness of texture and flavor – hot, sweet, smoky, crunchy, velvety ... sigh. Fisherman’s Wharf prices, $3.50, but I have to say the quality made it worth it.
I didn’t get it, but they have their own blend of ground in-house Vietnamese coffee (café sua da). There is also fresh squeezed lemonade.
It is so clean and a joy to be in. Not that I don’t love some of the Tenderloin joints, but this is really a nice shop.
They also have pho, bun, other noodle soups and rice plates. Don’t know if these are fresh or canned but juices include mango, passion fruit, honeydew, cantaloupe, grape, pineapple ... and the menu says more.
I liked that pork so much I want to try some of their other grilled items.
Other banh mi include: Vietnamese ham roll (cha lua), combination special (dac biet), Chinese BBQ pork (xa xiu), grilled shredded chicken (ga nuong), teriyaki chicken (ga teriyaki) vegetarian special (chay).
The Imperial rolls (cha gio) with a container of peanut sauce, actually looked quite good. The only thing that didn’t look so good was the shrimp & pork salad roll. Ask to have these made to order. The ones I saw were under heat lamps.
Pho was beef noodle, meatball noodle and chicken noodle.
Other soups and noodle dishes included seafood combo (hu tiu do bien dry (kha + .50), meat & seafood egg noodle soup (mi thap cam), seafood combo with egg noodle soup (mi do bien), Crispy egg noodle & vegetables (mi xan don).
There were 8 vegetarian offerings and 6 types of bun.
Some of the rice plates included BBQ beef with stem rice (con xuam ba nuong), Domino steak (cube steak (ba luc lac), grilled pork, chicken or shrimp, spicy beef or chicken curry (com ca rib o hay ga), spicy seafood curry.
The people running it are very nice. It almost breaks your heart. Real Vietnamese food in Fisherman’s Wharf ... they go through the trouble of explaining each dish on each section (Pho is the most popular soup of North Vietnam; freshly sliced tender beef and rice noodles cooked in seconds by the steaming broth in your bowl). I would guess this is not appreciated by many tourists looking for that gummy bowl of clam chowder in a sourdough bowl.
Alas, alas ... tourists will bypass it ... San Franciscans won’t step foot in Fisherman’s Wharf.
As to the other place, Little Vietnam Café on 6th Avenue at Clement ... ok, it wasn’t the worst of banh mi, just average.
I had the Vietnamese combo pork sandwich (banh mi dac biet). I never thought I’d say this about banh mi, but there was too much meat. They had that red headcheese which was a little less chewy and better than the one at Yucatasia. There were other cold cuts, but not my area of expertise.
The bread itself was only ok. The filling was pickled carrots and daikon ... and, uh, sautéed green onion and parsley ... yep, really ... parsley, not cilantro. AND it was $3.75 which made it more expensive than the Fisherman’s Wharf sandwich.
They also serve a number of appetizers. Like fried imperial rolls (cha go) filled with pork, carrots, glass noodles and taro root.
There are a few versions of spring rolls like Goi Cuon Thit Nuong (grilled pork, lettuce, cilantro, bean sprouts, mint leaves & vermicelli rolled in rice paper. Served with fish sauce.
Other banh mi include pork, pork meatball, grilled pork and grilled chicken.
There are six types of bun (vermicelli bowls). There are seven rice plates including grilled pork chop, fresh pork rind and steamed meat loaf (com suong bi cha). You can add 2 eggs over easy (trung chien) to the rice plates. There are five vegetarian dishes.
Ten soups – chicken pho, pho tai nam (beef noodle soup with rare steak and well done flank), pho bu vien (beef noodle soup with rare steak and beef meatballs), pho dac biet ( beef noodle soup with rare steak, well done flank, brisket & beef meatballs), mieng ga (rice noodles with chicken), bun bo hue, spicy beef noodle soup, cari ga (curry chicken with rice noodles, bun bo kho (beef stew), bun rieu (mixed crab meat in tomato broth) and hu tieu dac biet (seafood noodle soup).
They also have the largest selection of desserts I have ever seen. This must be their specialty since they looked excellent and the woman behind the counter was pushing them. I was on a hot cross bun crawl so dessert was out of the question.
It is a small shop with 4 uncomfortable seats at a window counter. I read on the web that was the former spot for Vege House. The current chef supposedly also specializes in vegetarian cooking and will make almost any dish vegetarian (there’s only so much you can do with pho after all).
The woman at the counter was very pleasant, spoke excellent English and was very helpful.
Little Vietnam Café
309 6th Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94118
Mon-Thu 8:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.
Fri-Sun 8:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m.
Saigon Grill website below with menu and pictures of food. I guess they cater too.
Saigon Grill website
Pretty good bahn mi can be found at a little hole-in-the-strip-mall-wall a few blocks north of the El Cerrito Mall on San Pablo on the right hand side of the street. Very cheap--like $1.85-2.75. Pho supposed to be good to, but didn't try. Bahn mi Ba Le, I think.
I kept begging my husband to stop on the way to Home Depot and finally we did. Only thing I didn't like were the shrimp dumplings because the shrimp had the shells on. Disturbingly crunchy to me.
That is too bad about your experience at Little Vietnam. I went when it first opened (maybe 2 months ago now), and although not the best I had ever had, it certainly was good. And there WAS cilantro, and was NOT parsley or green onions. That is just weird. I will have to check back to see if they did indeed mess with success. I was so excited to have another bahn mi place close since Little Paris 2 closed down.