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REVIEW: Banh Mi Cho Cu, Westminster

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Your typical American drives past Bánh Mì Chợ Củ and thinks it's an acupuncture parlor, or a travel agency, or a grocery store.

Your typical American doesn't enquire deeply into the restaurant recommendations of his Vietnamese co-workers. Your typical American, when hearing a Vietnamese sandwich being lauded in Vietnamese between two Vietnamese people, does not break in with "WHERE DO I GET THAT??"

Fortunately for my palate, I am not a typical American. Yes, I'm overweight. Yes, I talk too loudly. Yes, I drive my car rather than taking a long, overwrought bus route. But I love banh mi. LOVE them. And will drive a long way to get them, if needed -- except that, happily, I live near Little Saigon, and my office (well, one of them anyway) is near Little Saigon.

I collected up a courageous, non-Vietnamese co-worker, explained that we were going someplace like Lee's but hopefully better, and we headed out the 22 to Banh Mi Cho Cu (N.B.: copy/paste is not working well for me here, and I'm not going through the effort of all those diacritics again, sorry... refer to the first paragraph for the "real" name in Vietnamese, since that's what's on the sign). We walked in, and I saw the messy piles of sweets, the loosely-covered tray of cha lua, the enormous pile of pickled vegetables, and I knew it was "right", like Banh Mi Che Cali is right, and like Lee's is NOT right.

"Mmmmm... hold on," says the woman behind the counter, and goes to get someone with better English.

"Mot banh mi thit nuong, mot banh mi xiu mai, mot chen ca phe sua da, mot phan goi cuon," said I, forestalling the dreaded translator and the even more dreaded "maybe you like turkey sandwich. (One sandwich with grilled pork, one with pork meatballs, one cup of iced Vietnamese coffee, one order of summer rolls, by the way, for those playing along at home.)

After the usual exclamations about how the fat white guy speaks Vietnamese, how come, did I live in Viet Nam, etc., the sandwiches came up. $1.50 each, plus $1.00 for the coffee and $3.00 for the rolls (three huge rolls in an order, though).

We drove the food back to the office, but I tucked into the coffee before I even got out of the parking lot. It was EXCELLENT. My only complaint is that they should use crushed ice so that it becomes like Vietnamese coffee granita -- always my favourite part of ca phe sua da, getting to prolong the experience through a couple of hours as the ice melts.

We took over a conference room, laid out our swag, and dug in.

Oh.

My.

GOD.

The xiu mai were still hot -- not warm, HOT -- which speaks well for the sanitation standard of the place. I bit into the sandwich and -- wow. Just -- wow. The bread was crunch on the outside, soft but just slightly gluten-y on the inside. The seasoning was just right, the cilantro and the vegetables in good proportion, the chile pepper properly spicy. And the xiu mai -- oh god. I've never had such juicy xiu mai. Seriously, the juice ran down my chin. The cilantro was stalky, but that's a personal preference thing, not a flaw in the sandwich.

The grilled pork wafted lemongrass scent through the whole room. It looked delectable. I wanted to have some but by the time I thought to ask, Courageous Non-Vietnamese Co-Worker had downed the sandwich and was looking at the summer rolls.

"What's in 'em?"

"Cooked pork, cooked shrimp, herbs and lettuce. Wrapped in rice paper, with peanut sauce."

The rolls were very good -- not necessarily better than elsewhere, but very tasty and with some obviously Vietnamese herbs in there (rau ram, for example).

These were the best banh mi I've ever eaten. I cut my banh mi teeth on Saigon Sandwich in the Tenderloin of SF, which might be the best banh mi in that city. I've been to Mr. Baguette, Top Baguette, Tip Top Sandwiches, Saigon Sandwich, Ba Le, Banh Mi Che Cali, Paris Baguette, and of course Lee's, down here, and this just blew them all straight out of the water.

You HAVE to go. It is an imperative. And, at $1.50 per sandwich, it's one of the better banh mi deals out there. There are no frills, simply wonderful sandwiches.

GO.

-----
Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery
14520 Magnolia St, Westminster, CA 92683

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  1. From one big fat white guy who speaks vietnamese to another - thanks for the above. I've had a hankering for a good banh mi; now I know where I'm going! Gam on!

    1 Reply
    1. re: markethej

      That's "Cam on"! ;)

    2. Great writeup, DU. Yes, Cho Cu is terrific and has been for years. The meatball sauce is here is a little too sweet for my tastes, but other than that minor quibble, it's a standout.

      And I have mentioned this in the past, but Top Baguette has gone seriously downhill. The bread's no longer the grand thing it was under the original management.

      1. I may not understand your Vietnamese, but I know a poet when I read one. Nice post. I'm there this weekend.

        1. You sold me! Thanks for this review. I'm droolin' and I just ate.

          http://elmomonster.blogspot.com

          1. Another Cho Cu convert! Now you can see why I really dug this place. By the way, I forgot to mention in my earlier banh mi quartet post that Professor Salt was the one to turn me on to Cho Cu Bakery. Thanks!!!

            1. I was there on saturday and paid $2.00 for Banh mi baguette. what are the one's for $1.50 ? I did not understand the language is it a different kind of bread or size. Anyway I had nothing to do last Saturday and per Pleasurepallette's write up I ent there. Das, look at my post we use the same way to describe "oh my god" they were good. I went to the park across the street and ate 1/2 or more of the 3 I had bought..

              4 Replies
              1. re: Foodandwine

                Banh mi use crusty rolls which are thicker and shorter. Baguette sandwiches use, well, baguettes, and are longer, thinner and have more meat (hence the price, it's actually a bigger sandwich).

                1. re: Das Ubergeek

                  You got it right on the spot. $1.50 for a banh mi with crusty ends or the center part of a baguette for $2.00 with no crusty ends.

                  1. re: oohenrioo

                    good stuff. i got the bbq pork today. anyway, i was charged $2 for a banh mi with crusty ends and $1.50 for the cafe sua da.

                    oh and can someone tell me what those meat sticks are next to the cash register and what they're called?

                    1. re: phant0omx

                      most likely they are nem nuong, the same meat in the Brodard rolls. It is a cured pork paste, so it will have a slightly tangy taste, and is great when it is grilled up properly.

                      You can also find it uncooked in little squares wrapped up in plastic wrap, with a clove of garlic and a slice of chili pepper. I don't really like it this way, as it is still "raw" but a lot of the older vietnamese men like to gnosh on this while drinking beer. The about an inch or inch and a half squares, and fairly inexpensive.

                      They also sell uncooked nem in bulk packages at the supermarkets. We will purchase these and either pan-fry or grill them ourselves. It's good food!

              2. GREAT write up! Your Vietnamese is very impressive; you even have the accents correct for the name of the place! Your review makes me want to go right now! Too bad they're closed :( I always take my friends here when we're in dire need of some banh mi.

                They have some other goodies as well as the banh mi like pad thay so (located in the little oven box on the right of the counter).

                I sometimes go there to get the bread so I can combine it with sunny side up, over easy, or scrambled eggs and eat it with soy sauce. Or I'll skip the soy sauce and just eat it with bacon or sausage. None the less, good stuff for a morning meal.

                1 Reply
                1. re: oohenrioo

                  try your eggs with some hoisin. I love a fried egg sandwhich w/hoisin.

                2. Tried the xiu mai and the thit nuong today at Cho Cu. These banh mi's made me think of Che Cali's banh mi( on Valley in Rosemead). The thit nuong tasted sorta like salami and I've never been a fan of xiu mai. In general, I don't like Che Cali on Valley although their thit nuong is seasoned in a more traditional manner than Cho Cu's. It's underseasoned and the vegatables are barely pickled. So eating a Cho Cu banh mi was like eating a Che Cali banh mi. The bread was good though, but I wish it had more flavor other than jalapenos and cilantro.

                  1. Last time that I went there I bought a grilled pork banh mi, a huge bao like thingy, some stuffed rice noodle dumplings (in other words, a ton of food) and a Vietnamese iced coffee: the tab? $5! I nearly fainted.

                    http://myculinaryadventures.blogspot.com

                    1. Hello, Das Ubergeek -- and thank-YOU!!!

                      Yes, yes, YES!!!! The banh mi from Banh Mi Cho Cu was THE BEST we have ever had!

                      75 miles later -- the drive was completely worthwhile for this banh mi.

                      We, too, have enjoyed the others: Mr. Baguette, Top Baguette, Saigon Sandwich, Ba Le, Che Cali, etc. etc. but these from Banh Mi Cho Cu were by far superior to any others.

                      We had a vegetarian that was filled with interesting veggies and noodles and cilantro and jalapeno. I tasted the BBQ pork -- also delicious. We also shared a chicken pastry in the hot case; although it was a little greasy, the pastry was exceptional in flavor and texture. The Vietnamese iced coffee was great! We simply walked across the street to the park table...just perfect!

                      I didn't want my sandwich to end...and I wish I had had room for two. I was trying to find every excuse to wander Magnolia or Bolsa and return for another banh mi, but I was just too full.

                      We then took several items home for tomorrow's breakfast...all for about $10!

                      And the owner and her daughter were extremely helpful and friendly. The daughter came from behind the counter to help us select some special items that would keep until tomorrow.

                      Oh, WOW!!! Thanks for this terrific recommendation! I can't wait until my next visit!

                      Banh Mi Cho Cu is open every day: 4am-7pm
                      #714.891-3718

                      1. Family has been going to Banh Mi Che Cali since the beginning of time, but the viet food experts are always raving about this place....must break the mold and try it!

                        9 Replies
                        1. re: groover808

                          groover808 - Go!!!

                          Banh Mi Che Cali has also been one of our places...but it will never be the same anymore.

                          I will look forward to your next post.

                          1. re: liu

                            Was down in Little Saigon today and went...loved it! I got the thit nuong baguette. I'm used to sub par pork in banh mi, but this was just as good alone and it had the green onions in oil. The bread was nice and crusty without being painful (Lee's can be hard as a rock sometimes). The coffee was nice and strong too (sign said $1.50 vs $1.00 stated above). I'm itching to try the xiu mai and good old cha lua next time. Plus the cashier, younger woman, is very friendly. I hate braving the mob at Banh Mi Che Cali, I don't want to be rude to the elders, but you have to muscle your way in or else! It was pretty slow at Cho Cu, but seems like there is some type of organization.

                            This is my new favorite, now off to convert the entire family!

                            Does the combo have pate and butter? My family looooves those in the combo sandwiches.

                            1. re: groover808

                              I confirm your excitement, and I am glad that you liked it, AND didn't it "ruin" any other banh mi experience for you? !!

                              Although I only tasted the BBQ pork, I thought it was quite good. Still, it's all about the bread...just perfect! As you mentioned, I also thought their iced coffee was delicious -- without being bitter.

                              The younger woman went out of her way to spend time with us as we selected items for the next morning. She was genuinely concerned that we enjoy her food, and she carefully explained some of the items that were not familiar to us. We took home some pandan cake (which heated very nicely in the toaster-oven this morning and was really tasty), a bun, some "ham" (more like a pate) wrapped in a banana leaf, and a few other items.

                              groover808 - Pate and butter? Please let us know if they have this in their combo.

                              1. re: liu

                                That ham in banana leaf is cha lua -- it's great.

                                1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                  But we baked it a bit this morning and it turned a little rubbery. Although it is not "my thing," it was very tasty.
                                  Do you eat it cold? If you want to heat it, do you bake or micro?

                                  What is it? Is it the same as Vietnamese spam? Do you know what is in it?

                                  1. re: liu

                                    It's the equivalent to a cold cut, so it's not best heated and you should refrigerate it the day you get it. Traditionally you eat it cold or room temp (although it may be sold hot right after it has been steam cooked). If you want a simple sandwich, just toast the bread (if desired) sprinkle soy sauce, layer few sprigs of cilantro and then top with sliced cold cha lua.

                                    It is also a common component to banh cuon, or rice noodle sheets. Cha lua, bean sprouts, fragrant herbs, and fried onions are placed on top of the rice noodle sheets then doused with fish sauce. It can also come atop a steaming bowl of noodles, but added last minute so it's not too hot.

                                    You can also get cha lua at most Vietnamese markets in the refrigerator section wrapped in banana leaf and covered in foil.

                                    1. re: groover808

                                      Thanks, groover808, for this information. It came exactly as you described: in a banana leaf, wrapped in foil, and then it also had an outside wrapper directly around the meat.
                                      We still have some left, so we will enjoy it cold! And I like all your suggestions for eating it.

                            2. re: liu

                              Wow, 3.5 years later and I'm just reading about this place now.

                              I dropped off my Lovely Tasting Assistant™ (LTA) at a conference in the Anaheim Convention Center yesterday. We didn't want to pay $12 to park, and we didn't want to spend the money for 2 round trips from Anaheim to Fairfax. So instead, I spent the day wandering around Little Saigon, which is something I've always wanted to do anyway. (I've made precious few trips down there over the years).

                              OK, first, Das, Prof Salt et al., THANK YOU. I too have been stuck at BMCC for a long time, and have enjoyed their sandwiches for years now. However, they simply don't compare. The baguette at cho cu was IMPOSSIBLY crispy, IMPOSSIBLY thin, IMPOSSIBLY light, with just the right amount of soft chewiness giving way to those wondrous meatballs and sauce. (The price now is $2.50 for a baguette sandwich). (Unfortunately the BBQ pork was not up to the same standard... BMCC's was better-- smokier, juicier.)

                              I knew I had to share this with my LTA™, so I saved half of each baguette for her but alas, the bread did not last, and although it was tasty, to was sogged out byt the time she ate it. We returned to the shop, but by that time they had closed, so we defaulted back to BMCC. It was then that I had the opportunity to compare my fresh memory of cho cu with BMCC. Those baguettes that I loved so much, for so many years? They're like Russian black bread by comparison. SO much chewier, more dense. Cho cu's were almost ethereal in their wispiness.

                              So, please. For anyone who hasn't tried them, go. Go, go, go.

                              Mr Taster

                              1. re: Mr Taster

                                Yup, the bread is key, and they really nail it. Glad you got to try it.

                          2. OK...I went there too today. Just before 4 when they close and they were busy. Parking lot was nearly full. I stood and looked about first, trying to figure how and what to order. No one asked me what I wanted, just took orders from everyone else around me. I found the daughter coming from around the counter, knew it was her b/c I heard her speaking English. I asked her for the combo and the xiu mai and how to order. She told me then I turned around to order, but the other 2 ladies kinda ignored me. I had to speak up and then they still gave me the wrong ones. I wanted the regular rolls, not the baugette. I told her I wanted the regular bread, she says, 'you like, it good.' I told her I really wanted the other bread. Then the daughter says to talk to her b/c pretty much they would be of no help to me. I was glad she was there. The older lady did not want to change my order b/c it was already made, so I said ok, just make me another w/the other bread. The daughter said it would be ok to switch, but since it was only a few bucks, I knew I could keep it for tomorrow or give to my roomie and her boyfriend. Anyways, she took care of me and I really appreciated that. Finally, I did order a iced coffee....oooo so good! I also bought 2 of the banana leaf wrapped items. I was hoping one would be more similar to a chinese dongze (tamale), but instead of rice, it was more like rice flour or pureed rice with the meat filling. I still have the one with mung beans, hoping it is really rice inside. I can't wait to go back, and I love that they are open so early in the morning.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: justagthing

                              That four AM or whatever isn't a typo?? Wow. I figured that liu meant to type 7:30 and fat-fingered the number on the keypad.

                              If they're really open at that hour, I can get fantastic sandwiches AND the shockingly good coffee and still make my 5:55 AM train!

                              I haven't noticed any weird service issues but I was the only person in there both times I went recently, and I can at least fake my way through Vietnamese.

                              1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                Hi, Das Ubergeek!
                                I am reading directly from their current business card:
                                "Open 7 days:
                                Mon - Sun: 4am - 7pm
                                Tel: (714) 891-3718"

                                Perhaps, give them a call to confirm that it is not their typo on their card. I took a few cards and each is the same. Oh, if only I had a source for Vietnamese iced coffee at 4:00am...the stuff of dreams!

                                1. re: liu

                                  The Chowhound Team split a general discusion about Vietnamese coffee to the General Topics board. It's over here now: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/426348

                            2. So, tell me what we tasted tonight!

                              When we were at Banh Mi Cho Cu, we picked up -- among many other items -- a banana leaf pyramid. Inside is a white, dense gelatinous paste (almost the consistency of mashed potatoes with a little rice noodle mixed in?) with ground meat.
                              No one loved this, but I certainly would like to know what it is.

                              Thanks!

                              5 Replies
                              1. re: liu

                                liu, I had one of those yesterday, not too fond of it myself. I was hoping that it would be like a dongzu, a chinese tamale like item. But I did not care for the consistency of the 'rice' dough. I ate the meat/noodle concoction in the middle and threw the rest away. I also bought the other more dense triangular item wrapped in a banana leaf with sweet rice and beans. Now that was much more like the Chinese item I mentioned above. It is also a savory item, very yummy. Try that one next time.

                                1. re: justagthing

                                  justagthing -- There were three of us, and it was not popular with anyone. It didn't have enough flavor...nothing really distinct.
                                  The sweet rice and beans sounds more interesting, and I will get that next time. And for you, I highly recommend the pastry items in the hot glass case; although ours was rather greasy, I kept returning to it for "just one more bite" until it was...gone! The pastry was amazingly delicate and tasty and perfect. Ours was chicken, but I would imagine that all of them are just as delicious...with your banh mi, of course!

                                  1. re: liu

                                    liu-yes, I have had those pastries in the past. There are some Cambodian places near my work and they offer the chicken one, it's cut in a circle and looks as if it is made from puff pastry or crossoint dough. It is much less greasy there and I can often find it when they bring it fresh out of the oven. But I was thinking of trying the, I think it was, strawberry croissont for a dessert item. The madelines look good too, maybe I can dunk that in the really yummy ice coffee...LOL

                                    1. re: justagthing

                                      The chicken pastry is called "pa te so" (remember that "s" in Vietnamese is pronounced closer to English "sh" than English "s"), which is a calque of the French "pate chaud" (sorry, no accents on this machine).

                                      They're really good when fresh but go downhill fast.

                                      1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                        "...but go downhill fast" -- No worry. It was gone within minutes of purchase!

                                        Thanks, Das Ubergeek, for all your information, and especially for replacing my past obsession (Tacos Baja Ensenada) with a new one (Banh Mi Cho Cu)!

                              2. Ooh thanks for the tip on the xiu mai sandwich, gonna make a pit stop for that when I'm back in town. Damn, you guys are making me miss OC worse than ever.

                                9 Replies
                                1. re: choctastic

                                  just finished the xiu mai sandwich. Juicy, greasy, and outstanding. Twas $2 for me, not $1.50. I'm not usually a fan of the meatball ones, but now I believe. I had juice running all over the place, crazy. My only complaint was that the filling/veg was a little skimpy compared to my favorite (Banh Mi Che Cali)

                                  I can see why the Prof likes this place. The bread was the best I've had in recent memory and reminded me a little of Top Baguette's bread, back in the day when it was decent.

                                  I also grabbed my favorite pandan cake. Sure it all comes from the same factory, but the package I got here was moister and more tender than I've ever had.

                                  1. re: choctastic

                                    choctastic -- Needless to add, I love their sandwiches and their bread.

                                    But the pandan cake was far superior to any I had tried before. As you mentioned, it was fresher than most, and it had flavor! When I have had it before, it has been bland with almost no taste. This was delicious, and it traveled well into the next day without losing its moisture!

                                    1. re: choctastic

                                      pardon my ignorance, but what exactly is pandan cake? What might the Vietnamese term for it be? I have resolved that my next banh mi will be one from Banh Mi Cho Cu, based solely on this thread.

                                      1. re: hch_nguyen

                                        pandan is a fragrant leaf that we use to flavor certain food products. It is called la dua in vietnamese (sorry I couldn't get the marks on it, it's the tone that goes up in pitch). Typically green food coloring is added to it, because the la dua is green color. You can also get soybean pudding with this flavor at various supermarkets in Little Saigon, they will be right next to the "normal" white kind.

                                        1. re: hch_nguyen

                                          The flavor is very delicately "fragrant," but very, very subtle. It is a flavor that is difficult to dislike. The pandan cake from Banh Mi Cho Cu is moist, light and colorful...a delightful dessert!

                                          1. re: hch_nguyen

                                            ahhh...after I looked up a pic on wiki, I know what this is now. Although I've been around it all my life, I never eat it that's why it wasn't familiar to me. The flavoring leaf is pandan but the pastry itself is bánh da lợn

                                            1. re: hch_nguyen

                                              Well, i don't know what the otherse are getting but the one I was eating was not banh da lon but a baked cake, banh bo nuong (pandan flavored), I think is the name? sorry about lack of accents, but I am not a talented fat white guy.

                                              This is what mine looks like (after sliced)
                                              http://pwmf.blogspot.com/2005/10/bnh-...

                                              Banh Mi Che Cali sells the whole cake in a tin, but even when I get it straight from the guys coming out fo the back of the bakery, it still tastes staler than what I got from Cho Cu the other day.

                                              1. re: choctastic

                                                ahhh...now I know. Banh bo makes it crystal clear. Thanks.

                                                1. re: choctastic

                                                  choctastic -- The photo you provide is exactly what I bought at Cho Cu. It is good warmed very slightly in the microwave or toasted a bit. It needs nothing on it...it's nice as is. I also liked that it was just as good the next day.

                                        2. You know, I had the banh mi xiu mai here today and it was bland and flavorless. The breawd was kind of limp as well. I was pretty surprised since my other sandwiches were good.

                                          1. I just want to throw in and say, thank you Das Ubergeek, because the xiu mai banh mi was the best banh mi of my life. Intense flavors, very seperated, very against - warm pork, spikey intense spice, sweet, pickley daikon - it's like every flavor in its pure beauty against every other flavor, in perfect, shining harmony.

                                            1. Oh, and here's a nitpick... a Vietnamese friend of mine says the name should actually be spelled

                                              Bánh Mì Chợ Cũ

                                              The ũ is a longer sound than ủ. Apparently it's a common Vietnamese spelling mistake.

                                              Mr Taster