My personal Mother of All Banh Mi posts, and a note about papaya salad with dried beef
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:
My all time fave is the Cam Huong (Oakland Chinatown location) Curry Chicken Banh Mi. Finely chopped chicken in a yellow curry. Awesome with the chili peppers. The richness/sauciness is nicely complemented by the crisp vegies. I also like the bacon, curry tofu, and pork chop sandwiches there. The teriyaki chicken option is great for introducing the phobic to banh mi (it is grilled white meat chicken w/out any skin).
Had a chance to try Huong Lan Sandwiches on Tully Rd./San Jose today - maybe it's because I haven't had a banh mi in quite a while or maybe it truly was the best one ever - I don't believe I've ever had one with a buttered roll - and chopped peanuts - DH and I loved it! Meats were very flavorful and we didn't find them to be fatty. Very friendly staff. Very yummy Viet style jerky too. In our estimation: worth the trip
Huong Lan does some with ground peanuts and fried shallots and a sauce, I've had it that way with the "grilled pork", which is some weird chopped and formed grilled meat thing. I can't explain it becuase I've never seen it anywhere else. The peanuts, shallots and sauce make it really good.
You must have stopped there after our lunch sometime? If so, then we missed each other because Nathan and I stopped there as well! You know I had to get some banh mi for the husband. I ordered the #1 combo, the BBQ bacon, and I think the sardines one all to go. The sandwiches were all $2.50ea.
That night I shared half of the combo with Y. I always like to grind lots of fresh black pepper and then toast up lightly in the toaster oven when I serve at home. It was delicious!! I've always liked Huong Lan, but this one tasted even better than usual. It was seasoned well and stuffed w/ the pickled veggies, which many places can skimp on.
My favorite bread remains the one from Dakao downtown, but I like Huong Lan's touch w/ the fillings. Y had the bbq bacon one for lunch the next day and he proclaimed it another winner. The bacon was not (or perhaps only lightly) smoked, and it was sliced very evenly and thinly. He likes fatty things so had no problem devouring it.
I have tried their fresh rice paper rolls and have found them pretty decent but not remarkable. The three rolls that I bought from that tiny deli a few doors down from Thien Long on Silver Creek were the best I've ever tasted from a shop. The wrapper was very fresh and moist, and the fillings were lively and crunchy. The peanut sauce was also just right. I'll have to try more stuff from that place!
Huong Lan Sandwiches
1655 Tully Rd, San Jose, CA 95122
re: Carb Lover
Yes, we missed each other because we tried to find something at Target before heading off to Huong Lan! Thanks again for mentioning that you like them. The banh mi that I liked best was the "grilled pork" that P. Punko talks about above - it had the peanuts and the buttery flavored bun. How was the sardine one? DH thought about that one but then went with the meatball instead. I was tempted by the bacon.... I need to get back down there and try the combo. The sesame garnished jerky was totally meat candy!
Well, husband took the bbq bacon and sardine ones for lunch at work, so I didn't get to try them. According to him, they were both excellent, so much so that he liked them better than the combo (which he liked too). He said the sardine one was sort of chopped up and compressed chunks w/ fish, like a fish salad of sorts. I've never encountered this type of filling elsewhere. Gosh, I don't think I've tried the grilled pork w/ peanuts and buttered roll; will put that on the list for next time!
PS. I always get a kick out of that huge chandelier that greets you at the doorway!! :-)
re: Carb Lover
Wow - I'm realizing just how much I'm totally focused on food! When I walked in, all I saw was the BBQ meat section with the whole roast pig, etc.!!! I didn't even notice the chandelier! Talk about a one-track mind.... I was really tempted, but resisted the braised pork belly with hard boiled eggs!
Here are the tags!
Cam Huong Cafe
920 Webster St, Oakland, CA 94607
1816 Tully Rd 182, San Jose, CA 95111
32124 Alvarado Blvd, Union City, CA 94587
Saigon Sandwich Shop
560 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94102
668 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94109
Huong Lan Sandwiches
1655 Tully Rd, San Jose, CA 95122
625 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94109
2525 S King Rd, San Jose, CA 95122
1221 Story Rd, San Jose, CA 95122
426 Larkin St, San Francisco, CA 94102
Banh Mi Ba Le
10174 San Pablo Ave, El Cerrito, CA 94530
I've been trying to figure something out - the first two banh mi I ever had (one was supposedly one of the best in LA, and one was the pate banh mi at the McKee Road branch of Lee's Sandwiches, which I think might have been the best sandwich I've ever had) were made on narrow French baguettes. However, every banh mi I've had in Oakland (Chinatown's Ba Le, Cam Huong, and B C Deli) has been on a larger, fluffier roll. I thought it might be an East Bay vs. South Bay thing, but your description of the rolls at the Lee's Sandwiches' King Road branch makes me think there's variation even within the Lee's chain.
So - my question is, what kind of baguette are they supposed to be on? Is there an "authentic" version?
For what it's worth, I think the pate/cold cuts version goes better with a French baguette, and the juicier pork/chicken/meatball/etc verions go better with the larger roll (can't imagine you'd be able to fit much into a French baguette).
So my rankings are:
1) Lee's Sandwiches (2307 McKee Road, San Jose - I've never been to any other branches, but I took a look at some of the other posts, and it seems like quality varies wildly) pate and cold cuts sandwich - they hit my ideal proportion of bread to meat to veg (I wasn't able to discern mayo or any other sauce). I love a baguette with pate and cornichons, and this sandwich is exactly how I imagine a Vietnamese interpretation would taste.
2) B C Deli, barbecued chicken version (818 Franklin Street, Oakland). I think they have the crustiest rolls, and I don't think they use mayo (their sauce is darker, and saltier. And umami-er, if that's a word. Don't know what goes into it).
3) Ba Le (two doors down from B C Deli) - nothing to distinguish it - decently tasty sandwiches.
4) Cam Huong - I'm with the "too much mayo" camp, and I find their rolls a little flabby. Although, the grilled beef and onion sandwich sounds really delicious, so I may have to give them another shot. I do really like their packaged grilled chicken with rice vermicelli for takeout - it's tasty, and it's a more appropriate serving size than the honking platters you get at most places if you order a sit-down lunch.
With regard to your question on the appropriate bread, I am of the opinion that the lighter, airier bread (made with a combination of rice and wheat flour) is more "authentic." I recently spent a good amount of time in Vietnam, and I don't think I ever saw a banh mi made with an ordinary French baguette.
I don't know about authentic, but the bread I've seen the most since I was a youngin' trolling Asiatowns is the "football" shaped baguette that is pretty airy and light. It looks big & intimidating but it actually squashes down to a nice crispy "holder" for all the banh mi goodness on the inside.
I've had banh mi in Boston, Seattle, LA and the Bay Area and the o.g. places usually always use the "football" shaped baguettes. They even sell big bags of those shaped baguettes in Oakland Chinatown markets & bakeries. We were told to take them home, crisp them up in toaster oven and have them dipped with condensed milk as a snack with Vietnamese coffee.
For the Bay Area I agree with the Cam Huong choice as my favorite too, I enjoy their grilled chicken the most. My other favorite banh mi choice is in a hole in the wall Asian market in Boston Chinatown.
Lee's is my least favorite of the bunch I feel. I would occasionally go to the Lee’s in LA years ago only because it was open 24hrs. But in the Bay Area I have no reason to go, their sandwiches have gone downhill in taste/quality while their prices have increased quite a bit in the recent years. Their sandwiches are pretty disappointing to me now, though I will drop in for a taro shake if I'm in the area.
Baguette Express (Tenderloin) uses more torpedo-shaped and they are toasted nice and warm, so come out super crusty.
Latte Express (two locations- one on Kearny and one on 3rd or 4th or 5th (?) below Market has long, skinny rolls.
I think the difference is that some places physically scoop out some of the bread, this makes a huge difference in how substantial the roll seems. King Eggroll had super football shaped bread, no scoopage, and the bread was too dense and bready. I like the way Cam Hung does it with some scoopage. Too much mayo is only a problem if the sandwich is saucy for some other reason (I always get the grilled meat, so a little sauce helps, and then you could skip the mayo). I love mayo, and compared to American sandwiches, it seems like CH doesn't put ANY on (although they do put more than most places).
Yeah, I love them, but since my pals got the sketchy (in their minds) veggie, I'm always a lone chowhound with my Banh mi. There are also places in the Sunset- I think someone will pipe in about those. There is an OK place on Stockton in SF Chinatown as well(I couldn't remember the name, so it's not on the list- it wasn't extra special, but passable for a grilled pork).
Speaking of vegetarian banh mi - I've had the baked curry tofu sandwich at Cam Huong on Webster between 9th and 10th Streets in Oakland Chinatown. It looks a little like a piece of brie cheese and soft on the inside. It's not fried or greasy and quite delicious. About $2.50 or 2.75. They also have a sardine and a salmon banh mi, neither of which I have tried yet.
I am only familiar with the SF tenderloin locations above (Wrap Delight, Saigon Sandwich and Baguette Express). I often opt for a vegetarian version, so I thought I would throw in my .02 on that subject. Wrap Delight offers a fried tofu version that I am quite fond of, as well as hard boiled eggs (2 eggs, sliced). (As a slight digression, I believe that the carrots and daikon are mixed and pickled together at WD and that it's about 1 part daikon to 2 or 3 parts carrot, which might explain why you didn't detect the daikon). Saigon Sandwich has a deep fried tofu version of which I am less fond--a lot more tofu than at WD, but it's greasy and has a not-so-fresh taste. Finally, Baguette Express has a vegetarian sandwich, but I thought it was horrible. Some sort of TVP or gluten, shredded. It was extremely salty but otherwise tasteless and very dry. Bleh.
re: P. Punko
The "shredded stuff" is actually called bi (accent mark down) and is seasoned tofu. It's much more labor intensive than just fried tofu, which I don't like in sandwiches. It's traditionally used in a lot of vietnamese vegetarian food, but is best either in spring rolls or with broken rice dishes (com tam bi), since then it comes with sauce
You know, I don't remember Huong Lan's being called BBQ Bacon or belly (I usually see that as separate from BBQ pork), but I really feel like the BBQ Pork I had there fit that description, but is belly the same part as where the bacon is? Definitely 50% meat, 50% fat.
I have never been all the way up to Ba Le II, but I do want to try it. I kind of live in a Banh mi hole (mid Pen) so it is always a drive. Sigh.
I'm definitely a Ba Le II fan (the El Cerrito one, haven't been to the one down the street from BC Deli). I like their bread (light and crunchy) and while they don't fill it as much as Cam Huong does, I prefer that too because I like the balance better (carb fiend here). Also, it means I'm not too full so I can get another sandwich. I have to say it's about my favorite banh mi around these parts.
Not choctastic, but I work in the neighborhood and go to Ba Le very often. I usually get the #9 which is the BBQ chicken or the #8 which is the Grilled Pork. The BBQ chicken is in the pink-colored Chinese-style, finely shredded, and I don't quite remember if the grilled pork is cut into strips, but it does have a nice, light lemongrass flavor to it. I would highly recommend eating there because they toast their buns and are fabulous warm.
What a wonderful post with great (and IMPORTANT) info. My husband luvvvvvvvvvvs Cam Huong in Oakland. He whimpers until we stop by at least twice a week for his breakfast bahn mi. Unfortunately they usually don't have the beef and onion in the early morning. He gets by with curried chicken.
Thank you again for all the good work. What a mensch!