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"Banh Mi Quartet" - a tasting of 4 different restaurants (review + pics)

pleasurepalate Jul 21, 2007 01:22 AM

In early 2007, I organized my quarterly "Quartet" dining series for my group and this time around, we focused on checking out 4 Banh Mi restaurants in February and March. The four places we visited were Mr. Baguette, Banh Mi & Che Cali, Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery & Lee's Sandwiches.

Before starting this series, I have never had banh mi before so this was definitely going to be a new culinary experience for me. I started the "Banh Mi Quartet" with Mr. Baguette in Rosemead primarily because I remembered seeing it featured on Huell Howser.

Walking into Mr. Baguette at 10:30 am, I was surprised at how busy it was. After finally getting a table with my dining buddies, we finally walked up to the counter to place our orders. When placing your banh mi orders, you have a choice of either having the pickled veggies on the side or in the sandwich. I opted for the side so that I could customize my sandwiches to my taste.

I went for the Avocado Shake and ordered two sandwiches, the Special Banh Mi with the ham and pate as well as the Smoked Bacon on the Sesame Roll. Being an avocado lover, the shake was an instant hit. It was rich, creamy and filled me with avocado love. As for the sandwiches, let's start with the Special Banh Mi.

While I liked the bread, I didn't think it was anything to write home about. It had a nice crust to it, but the inside of the bread wasn't soft enough, which disappointed me. As for the cold cuts, I wasn't that impressed. On their own, the meats were kind of bland and it was only the pickled veggies that gave the sandwich any flavor at all.

I actually preferred the Smoked Bacon on the Sesame Roll. Yes, it's more like a Subway sandwich in that it's a bigger roll and it comes with lettuce and tomato, but the bread was really good. In fact, in this scenario, I just liked this bread better than the more traditional Vietnamese banh mi bread of the other sandwich. Of course, it didn't hurt that the main ingredient was bacon in all its fatty, smoky goodness. I think it just may be true that everything tastes good with bacon.

Based on my meal there, I'd probably go back to Mr. Baguette again. I would definitely like to try a different banh mi from the cold cuts as a point of comparison. If nothing else, there's still that avocado milkshake to look forward to. Mmmm.mmm...good!

Second on the rotation was Banh Mi & Che Cali at the Rosemead location. Before I even start talking about their banh mi, I have to give kudos for what I consider are the best spring rolls I’ve ever had. The vegetables were extremely fresh but what stood out for me was the crunch aspect of these rolls, which I think was pieces of a deep-fried spring roll wrapper, but I’m not completely sure. Whatever it was, it added a different dimension in flavor which was comprised of a little salty and a little sweet.

Ok, let’s get back to the banh mi. Compared to Mr. Baguette, the bread at Banh Mi & Che Cali was definitely superior. For my visit there, I only had one sandwich, a BBQ Pork Banh Mi. The bread was outstanding - crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, just the way I envisioned what a French baguette roll should be like. As for the BBQ pork, it was absolutely delicious. Both sweet and a little smoky, the flavor of the pork was dancing up and down my taste buds. The pickled vegetables made the sandwich that much better and by the way, these veggies can also be ordered on the side or not. Based on that one sandwich alone, I’d go back to Banh Mi & Che Cali in a heartbeat, but the desserts that were also offered by this restaurant sealed the deal.

The Che part of the Banh Mi & Che Cali restaurant name is a general term is for a Vietnamese sweet dish or dessert. Che is usually soupy and is generally served with sweetened coconut milk and ingredients will include any combo of starches, fruits and/or jellies. We went to town and sampled 7 different kinds of Che. One of my favorites was the Che Thai, a chilled coconut milk drink flavored with pandan and featuring jackfruit, longan and agar-agar. This was an extremely refreshing dessert drink. I also really liked the sticky rice balls in the ginger syrup. Overall, Banh Mi & Che Cali is a banh mi keeper, but these wonderful desserts really stepped up its appeal even more.

After my great dining experience at Banh Mi & Che Cali, I didn’t think it could get any better, but it did and that came in the form of Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery in Westminster. The only downside is that it’s a take-out place, but on a pretty day, the park across the street is a wonderful substitute for a sit down restaurant. Walking into Banh Mi Cho Cu, it's quite apparent that it's a hopping place. Throughout our stay, there was a constant hustle and bustle of people coming in and out ordering their food. Other than banh mi, you’ll also see the variety of Vietnamese foods for sale other than the banh mi, which explains this small shop's popularity. From cold wrapped dishes to various filled hot pastries, you certainly had your pick. But do you know what really made me smile? The price of the banh mi sandwiches.

Up to this point, the sandwiches at Lee’s and Banh Mi & Che Cali were between $2.25 to a little over $3.00 in some cases. At Cho Cu Bakery, the prices were a steal at $1.25 and $1.50. Wow, my jaw almost dropped. I’ve heard that banh mi sandwiches were supposed to be around that range, but the first two restaurants I visited didn’t live up to that at all.

Other than the banh mi sandwiches, we all actually ordered some of the other wrapped items to share. There were definite hits and misses. Of all the ones we tried, I did like the more straightforward rice topped with dried fish, especially with soy sauce poured on top the best. The rice was a little sweet, but it really balanced well with the saltiness of both the fish and the soy sauce. Some of the other food items were just too glutinous for my taste.

So enough of the lolly-gaggling, let’s talk banh mi. I have to say that while I loved the banh mi at Banh Mi & Che Cali, I love the banh mi even more at Cho Cu Bakery. An intriguing thing to note about their exceptional bread is that it seemed hollowed inside, which meant that the baguette actually "cups" the filling as opposed to the filling just lying flat against the bread and falling out. With each bite, you get the delicious light-crispy-crusty bread, the delicious filling and the pickled vegetables all at one time. Now that's tasty efficiency.

A friend and I shared two sandwiches, the BBQ Pork Banh Mi and the Pork Meatball Banh Mi. As mentioned already, I thought the bread was absolutely wonderful and thankfully, the fillings were just as amazing. The bbq pork was charred to the point that it looked like beef jerky, but wow, the meat was tender, moist and had an intense caramelized flavor that just did it for me. As for the meatballs, my only complaint was that I didn't get enough of them, but what I did get was juicy and yummy.

I also really enjoyed the addition of sliced cucumbers to the veggie mix because they added refreshing notes to the overall flavor of both my banh mi sandwiches. One thing to note is that unlike Mr. Baguette or Banh Mi & Che Cali, there was no option to have the veggies on the side at Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery. My only regret about this tiny bakery all the way in Westminster is that it's so darn far from where I live, but then, what are gas prices and the 40+ miles I'd have to drive for even just a bite of one of their spectacular sandwiches. I wish I had one in front of me right now. (big sigh)

To end this "Banh Mi Quartet" series, Lee's Sandwiches was our last stop. Lee's has been around for a long time and I think it's fair to say that by virtue of having stores that have multiplied like bunnies all over the US; they've done a great job introducing banh mi to the mainstream public. Given their place in banh mi "history", I was curious to see how what the banh mi sandwiches would taste like from what many consider as the "McDonald's" of banh mi sandwich shops (and not necessarily in a positive way).

So in anticipation, I ordered a Grilled Pork Banh Mi and a Sardine Banh Mi. Like Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery, the veggies were not offered on the side, but came with the sandwiches. When my sandwiches arrived, I gravitated towards the Grilled Pork Banh Mi first. In taking the first bite, one thing I noticed right away was the bread and that wasn't a good thing. I was very disappointed in Lee's baguette.

It was sweet in a weird un-bread-like sort of way and the texture was chewy. Sweet and chewy is okay with a caramel candy, but not bread. I wouldn't say it was horrible but with recent memories of Cho Cu Bakery still floating in my mind, it's hard not to compare the two and find Lee's bread lacking.

The grilled pork filling was okay, although it reminded me of Chinese pork in that it erred on the sweeter side. "Sweet" bread and now a "sweet" filling? This combination wasn't quite working for me. Now the Sardine Banh Mi was fairly successful. I think the saltiness of the sardines cancelled out some of the sweetness of the bread and that's why I enjoyed it more.

In general, it was really the bread that brought everything down for me. The meat fillings, though not spectacular, were fine, but a sandwich without good bread is pretty much worthless. You might as well just take the filling, put it in a bowl, add lettuce and dressing and just make a salad out of it. I wouldn't say that I'd never go into a Lee's Sandwich shop ever again, but if I were in a part of the country where Lee's was the only place I could get a banh mi, I'd make the walk inside. Sometimes a burger just doesn't cut it.

Overall, this was a wonderful "Quartet." It was a great way to compare similar foods and to see how much the same or different they are from each other and the same goes for the 4 restaurants where we did our "Banh Mi" tastings in early 2007. In the end, what I really learned is that the baguette makes the "banh mi" and based on that, you'll definitely see me returning to Banh Mi & Che Cali and maybe, even making the drive to Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery whenever I need a Vietnamese hoagie fix.

Mr. Baguette
8702 Valley Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770
(626) 288-9166
www.mrbaguettesandwiches.com

To see pics, go to:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/la_addic...

Banh Mi & Che Cali
8450 Valley Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770
(626) 288-5600

To see pics, go to:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/la_addic...

Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery
14520 Magnolia Street Suite B
Westminster, CA 92683
(714) 891-3718

To see pics, go to:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/la_addic...

Lee's Sandwiches
8779 East Valley Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770
(626) 291-2688
www.leessandwiches.com

To see pics, go to:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/la_addic...

Thanks,
Abby
http://pleasurepalate.blogspot.com/

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  1. bigtums RE: pleasurepalate Jul 21, 2007 08:14 AM

    Wow! Excellent report! While I am not a banh mi expert, I do love my chicken and meatball banh mis' from Mr. Baguette in Monterey Park. I get mine with extra veggies (or salad as they call it).

    I agree with you on the spring rolls from Banh Mi & Che Cali, they are excellent. I personally didn't care for their banh mis' over Mr. Baguette, although they were good.

    I think you're right when you say it's all in the bread. Which is why I liked Mr. Baguette more. Maybe I just got a bad batch at BM&CC. I heard about a place in Echo Park that fill their banh mi all silly like with a lot of meat and stuff-and also heard that it's reflected in their price. So maybe after eating one of those I'll change my mind about these sandwiches being all about the bread.

    5 Replies
    1. re: bigtums
      b
      baozebub RE: bigtums Jul 21, 2007 09:23 AM

      You missed my favorite place, though I don't blame you since you seem to be based up in the Rosemead area.

      A couple of times a week, I stop by Tip Top Sandwiches (14094 Brookhurst St, Garden Grove, CA, 714-530-9239) for a sandwich and Vietnamese iced milk coffee before work. Nice breakfast for the commute, except I gotta wipe away the pieces of bread crust off my seat after I get out.

      1. re: bigtums
        k
        kek is khmer RE: bigtums Jul 21, 2007 04:14 PM

        where is the place in echo park? Name?

        1. re: kek is khmer
          bigtums RE: kek is khmer Jul 23, 2007 02:19 PM

          My bad. It's in Silverlake and it's called "KP's" http://www.kpsdeli.com/

          1. re: bigtums
            WildSwede RE: bigtums Jul 26, 2007 12:22 PM

            I actually liked KP's and posted on it.

            1. re: WildSwede
              bigtums RE: WildSwede Jul 26, 2007 03:33 PM

              I just read your review, WOW sounds great. Especially those spring rolls. I'm going to hit them up next week for sure.

              On a side note I just picked up some pollo and carne asada from La Esquina Meat Market for a BBQ tomorrow. Though I forgot the salsa, I'm still looking forward to eating it. Thanks for the recommendation!

      2. Foodandwine RE: pleasurepalate Jul 21, 2007 10:53 AM

        Abby,

        thanks for the post. I am going to Banh Mi Cho Co very soon.. Your blog is great. I can tell you love what you do..

        1. t
          tonicart RE: pleasurepalate Jul 21, 2007 11:36 AM

          I happen to love my bread slightly sweet and chewy, so Lee's is a favorite of mine. Mr. Baguette is a close second. I don't really like the bread at Banh Mi Che Cali, but I think all the fillings are pretty much the same.

          Another thing to mention is that no Vietnamese sandwhich is complete without a Vietnamese coffee. For those who have never tried it, it's painfully slowly dripped through a metal press and it is very strong. Sweetened condensed milk is added and it is poured over ice. You'll almost always see elderly Vietnamese men lounging around outside a store while the sip their coffee for hours while the ice melts. That said, I think Lee's has the best consistent coffee.

          Of course, there's always other things besides Banh Mi to try at these sorts of places, such as the steamed buns, cookies, pastries, etc...

          Overall a good round up of restaurants ;-)

          9 Replies
          1. re: tonicart
            Foodandwine RE: tonicart Jul 21, 2007 03:58 PM

            went today to Banh Mi Cho Cu. OH MY GOD!! were they great.. had the bbq pork, pork meatball and my old stand by sardine. The bread was better than a french bakery.. and that meatball was the best IMHO. News Flash as of June 15 the prices went up to a wopping $2.00 each. I then drove to Joes Italian Ice and Petruci's Ice Cream on Harbor Bl and had a small swirl.. What a lunch combo..

            1. re: Foodandwine
              pleasurepalate RE: Foodandwine Jul 21, 2007 04:26 PM

              Even at $2, that's still a much better deal than you'd get any of the banh mi restaurants I visited for this quartet. I'm glad you liked Cho Cu. Now you can see why I was over the moon for it.

              1. re: pleasurepalate
                Foodandwine RE: pleasurepalate Jul 21, 2007 04:37 PM

                if you ever need a dining companion.. I am in! SERIOUSLY NO KIDDING!! Would love to join you sometime.. love your blog.. I am very very impressed..

                1. re: Foodandwine
                  r
                  rad818 RE: Foodandwine Jul 21, 2007 04:51 PM

                  I went to Banh Mi & Che Cali in Alhambra today. I ordered the barbequed pork sandwich and a Thai iced tea. The sandwich was good, I was surprised that the pork is served at room temperature, not heated. There was lots of pork, some carrot strips and greeen chiles on the sandwich, that's all. For $1.75 it was good, was it the best sandwich I ever had, no, but it was the best $1.75 sandwich. The Thai Iced Tea was nasty- bitter and strong and cost almost as much as the sandwich, I won't order it there again. Next I will try Mr. Baguette.

                  1. re: rad818
                    bigtums RE: rad818 Jul 23, 2007 02:13 PM

                    When I went to Banh Mi & Che Cali I also got a thai iced tea and I noticed that they just opened up a bottle of pre-made thai ice tea that you can get at the 99 ranch market for like 50 cents, it's the one in an orange bottle. I was disappointed when I saw that.

                    1. re: bigtums
                      j
                      justagthing RE: bigtums Jul 24, 2007 09:36 PM

                      Well, you are getting a THAI tea at a VIETNAMESE place...

                    2. re: rad818
                      hch_nguyen RE: rad818 Jul 25, 2007 07:46 AM

                      NEVER! NEVER! buy Thai iced tea at a Vietnamese place. You will be disappointed every single time. It's like ordering cafe sua da in a Thai place. You are guaranteed to be disappointed. I once digressed from my own advice (out of a serious hankering for Thai iced tea) and I swear to you it was categorically the worst beverage I have ever sampled in my whole life. From now on, I intend to practice what I preach....

                      1. re: rad818
                        WildSwede RE: rad818 Jul 26, 2007 12:25 PM

                        I have a question. Is this the place that is on Valley and 6th (or 7th)? I know it under a different name (their spring rolls were the ABSOLUTE best under the previous name, hopefully that has not changed) but noticed the Che Cali in the name when I recently drove by. They also recently changed the interior of the restaurant again (it had been done a few years ago also). Just wondering. Thanks!

                2. re: tonicart
                  monku RE: tonicart Jul 21, 2007 05:06 PM

                  Cafe Sua Da-gotta have it with my sandwich. Must be their biggest money maker, 90% of the customers get them. Bahn Mi & Che Cali used to be $1.25, now $1.50. Vietnamese friend of ours gave me a can of Cafe Du Monde (coffee + chickory from the famous place in New Orleans) and told me they use that brand at Bahn Mi & Che Cali where her sister works.

                3. b
                  beauzeau RE: pleasurepalate Jul 21, 2007 06:39 PM

                  thanks for the great write-up. much appreciated!

                  only thing i would disagree with is about the bread at Lee's. maybe you were there on a bad day, but having been there a dozen or so times, i've found the bread to be consistently wonderful. light with a perfectly crunchy crust. never too sweet or chewy. frequently i even buy a plain baguette to take home for dinner. wish i could find that good of a baguette near hollywood.

                  cheers!

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: beauzeau
                    f
                    fdb RE: beauzeau Jul 21, 2007 09:48 PM

                    I did a taste off on my own a couple months ago hitting several places in the general SGV areas. I must've also gone to Lee's on an off day. I was not impressed with their bread as I thought bread is what banh mi is all about, so I haven't returned to Lee's. My favorite so far is the chicken sandwich on sesame rolls in Mr. Baguette. Just realized from the online menu that they mix mayonnaise with shredded grilled chicken. No wonder it tastes so moist--but not heavy at all! I guess this is the Vietnamese version of chicken salad but it's so darn good!

                  2. ipsedixit RE: pleasurepalate Jul 21, 2007 09:06 PM

                    Great write up, but you missed one of the original banh mi joints in that San Gabriel / Valley intersection of banh mi greatness ... Ba Le.

                    Good bread, great meat and stuffings.

                    Located right next to Popeye's on the NW corner of San Gabriel and Valley.

                    BaLe
                    725 E Valley Blvd
                    San Gabriel, CA 91776
                    (626) 571-5436

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: ipsedixit
                      pleasurepalate RE: ipsedixit Jul 22, 2007 12:42 AM

                      So many banh mi places, so little time. :) I'll definitely check out BaLe sometime.

                      1. re: pleasurepalate
                        feisty heo RE: pleasurepalate Jul 22, 2007 03:00 PM

                        Hey pleasurepalate! You should check out Saigon Sandiwch & Bakery, it's ACROSS the street from BaLe. The bread is the BEST! It's fresh and soft with the perfect texture. It's still good and soft after two days. YUM!!

                        I hate Lee's Sandwiches bread because it's hard and would hurt the roof of my mouth.

                      2. re: ipsedixit
                        t
                        tonicart RE: ipsedixit Jul 22, 2007 11:44 AM

                        If you go to Ba Le, you gotta try the pate on a sandwhich, that's what I remember them the most for :-)

                      3. o
                        oohenrioo RE: pleasurepalate Jul 22, 2007 02:51 AM

                        You can ask for the veggies on the side at Banh Mi Cho Cu. I love going there for their pork banh mi, it's my favorite!

                        1. b
                          brandygirl RE: pleasurepalate Jul 22, 2007 04:10 PM

                          I've never heard of Banh Mi before--I've never eaten Vietnamese food. This looks great. Thanks for introducing me to it.

                          Does anyone know a good place to go for this in the SFV?

                          10 Replies
                          1. re: brandygirl
                            b
                            BearCity RE: brandygirl Jul 22, 2007 04:53 PM

                            In Reseda, there's Sandwich Express on Sherman Way about a block west of Reseda Blvd. There's also La Baguette just around the corner on Reseda Blvd, but I like Sandwich Express better. Their baguettes are excellent, and I'm a big fan of their bbq beef sandwich, which is a spicy ground beef concoction. Prices are $2.50-$3.

                            1. re: BearCity
                              b
                              brandygirl RE: BearCity Jul 22, 2007 10:33 PM

                              That BBQ sandwich from Sandwich Express sounds great. I'll check it out next week. Thanks.

                              1. re: BearCity
                                wizardx RE: BearCity Jul 23, 2007 10:32 PM

                                I second Sandwich Express ......their meatball is pretty good and the coldcut is also very tasty.. it's the fresh bread that makes the difference.

                              2. re: brandygirl
                                t
                                tonicart RE: brandygirl Jul 23, 2007 09:40 PM

                                San Fernando Valley? You could take the 210 east to Rosemead and drive south to Valley Blvd, where there are tons of chinese and vietnamese restaurants, including many of the banh mi chains mentioned in the OP ;-) Maybe a 30 min drive? You could do some shopping for asian ingredients too...

                                1. re: tonicart
                                  Das Ubergeek RE: tonicart Jul 24, 2007 10:37 AM

                                  Sandwich Express is decent enough that there's no need to drive the 45-60 minutes to Valley Blvd (from Northridge it's definitely more than a 30 minutes' drive).

                                  I have to say, I was in the Banh Mi Che Cali on Valley not a month ago and the prices were $1.75 for the roll sandwiches and $2.00 for the baguettes -- and they were buy-2-get-1-free (which is usually only written as "mua 2 tang 1").

                                  I'll have to check out Banh Mi Cho Cu... maybe today for lunch.

                                  1. re: Das Ubergeek
                                    p
                                    pezworld RE: Das Ubergeek Jul 24, 2007 10:39 PM

                                    So have we not found any decent banh mi places in the SF valley other than La Baguette and Sandwich Express? (They keep trying to get me to try their beef Sandwich Express, but I can't get past the #6 BBQ Pork.) Remember, I've called it quits with the one on DeSoto north of Sherman Way.

                                    I'm in Woodland Hills, so going that far east down the 210 is a bit of a haul for me.

                                    1. re: pezworld
                                      Das Ubergeek RE: pezworld Jul 25, 2007 09:02 AM

                                      Banh mi shops aren't exactly thick on the ground in the Valley, so the short answer is "no, not really".

                                      1. re: pezworld
                                        o
                                        ozhead RE: pezworld Jul 25, 2007 01:38 PM

                                        Why have you called it quits with "the one on De Soto north of Sherman Way," i.e., Saigon Sandwiches?

                                        1. re: ozhead
                                          p
                                          pezworld RE: ozhead Jul 25, 2007 09:06 PM

                                          It used to be good until they changed ownership and slapped a fresh coat of paint on the place. Then they jacked up the price to something like $4 per sandwich, reduced the choices drastically, and put this god-awful "meat" like substance instead of pork, plus, get this, iceberg lettuce.

                                          (Now please someone tell me me the owners came to their senses and realized people don't need another Subway in the neighborhood -- but until someone does, I'm not stepping foot in the place.)

                                          I was eating pho next door (Ba Le Valley) one evening, months later, when one of the waiters there caught my eye. Turns out he used to work at the sandwich place. He pantomimed to me that he used to work there, then shook his head in regret about what had happened. No actual words were necessary.

                                  2. re: brandygirl
                                    o
                                    ozhead RE: brandygirl Jul 25, 2007 01:36 PM

                                    There's a banh mi shop on De Soto, just north of Sherman Way in Reseda. I believe it's called Saigon Sandwiches. As a lagniappe, right next door is a terrific family-run Vietnamese restaurant called Ba Le Valley, where we've been going for years. Ms. Oz swears by the duck soup, and the barbecued chicken is terrific, as are the imperial rolls.

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