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Why does L.A. Bahn Mi taste worse than SF

  • j

I love Bahn Mi I used to get in San Francisco. There are many places for cheap delicious hot Bahn Mi on Larkins street. One of my favorites places for it was a little bakery in the Castro run by a Vietnamese family. Crunchy but tender french bread filled to bursting with pork, foie gras or meat of your choice, pickled carrots and radishes, jalapeno, and cilantro.

Since there are many Vietnamese here, I was eager to find the best Banh Mi in L.A. I tried all the usual suspects such as Lee's Sandwiches, Buu Dien, Banh Mi Che Cali, and few others in SGV. But they all fall short of my expectations!! Either the bread is too hard, the fillings too skimpy, the meat not right, or not hot enough, something is always off. Am I just imagining this or is there a difference in Bahn Mi between SF and LA? Can anyone recommend a place that is like the ones I used to devour in SF?

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  1. Folks, discussion's already gone off track, so we're going to ask everyone to keep focused on great banh mi found uniquely in the L.A. area.

    This board's purpose is to source local delicious food, not to discuss food found in faraway places which have their own discussion boards.

    1. Just to clarify, I don't mean to disparage food in L.A. I've had many a fine meals unique to L.A. but since Bahn Mi is vietnamese, I expected it to taste fairly similar or have the same range within the vietnamese community. There are great pho places but I've been having trouble finding a bahn mi place.

      4 Replies
      1. re: Jolly

        Rather than LA proper, why not take a quick blast down the 405 to Little Saigon in the OC?

        1. re: Akitist

          I am trying to find a place I can go to regularly to satisfy my cravings. I don't mind driving to SGV frm Weho but OC seems a lttle far.

          1. re: Jolly

            I'm no fan of Asian food in general in SF, nor of the holier than thou attitude in SF. However, I have to say I've had some pretty kickass banh mi in SF and the East Bay so I feel your pain man. I think my favorite is at Ba Le in El Cerrito. It was the perfect proportion of crisp yet soft bread, decent meat and crunchy veg for me. So far, the Alhambra branch of Banh Mi Che Cali is the one that most approximated that Ba Le place as far as I've tried. Good luck and let us know what you find.

            At the Alhambra BMCC, bread was really fresh and shattered on bite because it was just made (busy Sat). Also KiKi's bakery is across the street which is an added plus. I think Ba Le still has the perfect ratio of bread/meat/veg but bread quality was better at BMCC. Oh that and I love the che at this location. The Westminster locations have che too but to my taste, theirs suck. I dunno, they don't put any sugar in their che. I am Asian and yeah I don't really need that much sugar but damn, it's dessert and there's gotta be a little sweetness in there.

            1. re: choctastic

              Yes yes yes. Kick ass is the word. I prefer most asian foods here in L.A since there are more variety due to such big pop of all types asians and very authentic. I don't mind driving for excellent food. But I've just given up on eating bahn mi here and haven't eaten any for a year. But I am going to gird my loins and try again.

      2. I'm no expert, but I think it's "all about the bread" (plagiarizing D'Elias here) and the ratio of bread to meat and fillings. Like you, when in OC I feel there's a big difference from home - not necessarily a bad thing - sometimes almost like two different kinds of sandwiches.

        Off-topic example: compare a D'elias grinder to any ginder anywhere else - it's all about the bread.

        2 Replies
        1. re: samse

          Bread is one of the key ingredients. For Bahn Mi, it has to be crunchy but not hard, tender but not mushy. And of course, fresh and warm as it is being filled with hot spicy fillings and secret sauce.

          1. re: Jolly

            Yes - with, of course, warm bread ala Ba Le in El Cerrito

        2. Traditionally a $2-3 bánh mì is not an Americanized overstuffed-style sandwich, although I suppose you could ask for bánh mì đặc biệt with extra meat.

          Lee's and Buu Dien are known for unremarkable sandwiches, but what are the "few other" bánh mì shops have you have tried in SGV? Ba Le have a variety of meats of available, and I personally like the BBQ beef at Baguette du Jour.

          1. I'm a veteran of the banh mi near the corner of Turk and Larkin -- they're what I consider overstuffed. You can get that kind of thing at Saigon Sandwich on Garfield Ave. in Monterey Park, south of the 10, south of the hospital, across from the takeout dimsum shack, but north of Garvey.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Das Ubergeek

              Thanks, I'm going to try them. When you say overstuffed, do you mean that they have a good balance of all the ingredients or just more meat?

              1. re: Jolly

                There's more of everything. I don't actually like them -- they're expensive for what they are and I consider them overstuffed. I prefer baguette sandwiches as in France -- very little filling. I cut my teeth on the ones in the Tenderloin but now I prefer the ones I get here.

            2. Personally, I like BMCC because the bread is fresh and they do have good Che, which is hard to find in LA. They also have the "buy 2, get one free" deal. Even though we never know what to do with the extra sandwich.

              Mr. Baguette is also good because I think the quality of the meat is better. They do the weird thing with the veggies in the baggie, but they told me they do that since many people order to go and they don't want the sandwiches to get soggy.

              Lee's is good when we go down to Little Saigon and want to grab a quick bite in the AM or late evening. If you want something to eat after midnight, I can't think of anything better (except maybe a taco in Santa Ana). I get the Dac Biet w/ extra Pate.

              There is another place in Little Saigon called Pierre's Bakery (they also have one in the SGV) and I noticed they added to their Banh Mi menu. They have fantastic baguettes and the ingredients looked very good. I will give them a try next time I am down there.

              1. Which Banh Mi Che Cali did you go to?

                2 Replies
                1. re: raytamsgv

                  It's been a while but I think it's the one in Rosemeade but it has been a while. I stopped eating bahn mi after not liking what I got.

                  1. re: Jolly

                    Personally, I think the BMCC in Alhambra is the only one worth going to. I think others must agree with me because it's very busy. I actually think it's better than both BMCCs in Westminster.

                    The Kiki's across the street is also the only Kiki's I can stand. That location has the fluffiest buns. I've been to another one down Valley in San Gabriel, next to that one supermarket and it sucked big time.

                2. I wish people made an L.A. banh mi blog, like the guy that does the great taco hunt blog and (i think)rameniac's ramen blog. I was going to start one but had a HORRIBLE banh mi at the first restaurant I was going to review in Long Beach(forgot the name of the restaurant). I literally had to spit out most of the sandwich as the pork in there was 90% fat/10% meat.

                  With THAT being said, i've had some good banh mi at Saigon Flavor in Torrance(corner of Crenshaw & Carson)and also a boba place in Gardena(the boba place in the shopping center that has Curry House & El Pollo Inka). I wouldn't recommend coming all the way down here unless there's something else you can do in the South Bay(beach perhaps?). I'd imagine that SFV has alot more choices.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: Low Blood Sugar

                    Most of the banh mi places are owned by Cambodians, so their take is a bit different, especially in the meats.

                    1. re: justagthing

                      Interesting, can you tell me the diff between cambodian and viet sandwiches?

                      1. re: Jolly

                        basically, the complaint on the meat is the difference. They tend to use fattier pieces, as stated. I've tried 2 places on Anaheim. They offer the usual w/pate, 'meatloaf' and such. Then they also offer a chicken, bbq pork and sometimes a beef one. They are all bbq'd meats, are marinated and are the same meats that they have sitting under heat lamps w/the other pre-made foods. They use the same veggies and pickles and sauce, but then the rest of the ingredients just don't jive compared to the Little Saigon places.

                        1. re: justagthing

                          Now that you mention it I was rather puzzled by the fattiness of the meat in some places. I didn't know why and just thought it was their way of doing things.

                      2. re: justagthing

                        What about the Lao version of a Banh Mi? I had some killer baguettes in Laos. Second only to Vietnam.

                        Are there any Lao restaurants in Los Angeles?

                    2. Banh Mi's are, by definition, baquettes.

                      They should not be "filled to bursting" with meat, or other accoutrements. These are baguettes, street food intended for the commoner; not the overstuffed grinders glamorized here in the States.

                      They should not necessarily be "hot". You don't want excess heat to wilt the pickled vegetables, or the cilantro, which in my opinion are the best parts of the banh mi.

                      For my money, I like Ba Le.

                      But if I had my druthers, I would build a time-machine, travel back in time to about the mid 1980s. Then I'd head over to the Hong Kong Supermarket on Garfield (just north of Garvey) and visit that little stand inside the market that sold the most perfect banh mi sandwiches ... and all for a mere $1.00. The pate was always fresh and tasty, the meat just perfect charred, the vegetables pickled sweet and vinegary, and the bread baked to a crusty and flaky perfection. I'd easily pay $10 now for one those sandwiches.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        Well, I am not going with 'shoulds'. I am just stating what I like in my bahn mi. The ones in NoCal happened to match my palate. I don't like too much bread but not too much filling either and I like hot meat in contrast with the cool crispy veggies.

                        1. re: Jolly

                          Well then you should reconsider your statement "Why does LA banh mi taste worse than SF"

                          1. re: ns1

                            I was actually considering that since I wrote it as a shorthand for my opinion on viet sandwiches but some people are taking it as a disparagement of L.A. itself.

                      2. I"ve never had a banh mi with hot meat. Sounds like a good deli option. Does anyone here who's been to vietnam recall having hot meat in a banh mi?

                        I've liked the banh mi at the Ba Le places in the west sf valley.
                        BA LE VALLEY
                        7223 DE SOTO AVE
                        CANOGA PARK

                        there used to be some places off of sherman way.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: Jerome

                          The hot meat might be just a SF thing, I am not really an expert. I just like certain flavors/combinations and might not like others even if it is authentic.

                          1. re: Jolly

                            that's certainly fair. i like the regular ones although one with warm meat might be fun to try.

                            as for spelling - vietnamese is written in latin letters and has been for quite some time, so unlike some other east asian or central asian languages, there is a standardized spelling in our alphabet. bánh mì I guess with the vietnamese tonal markings.

                            1. re: Jerome

                              thanks, didn't know that. I see it spelled differently and just use whatever is convenient at the time.

                        2. Let me preface my recommendation by stating what the owner once said to me in describing his restaurant: "It is Vietnamese food for Whitey". Now that all disclaimers are of the way... Gingergrass in Silverlake has really fantastic Bahn Mi sandwiches. Their bread is delivered fresh daily from a Vietnamese bakery and the cook staff is all Vietnamese. They offer the sandwich in pork, beef, chicken and in a grilled tofu version (which does sound strange but having had some of their other tofu dishes, I am sure it is delicious). They run about $8 but these sandwiches are on the larger side... 1/2 is plenty for a meal and they refrigerate quite nicely and are delicious cold the next day.
                          The place can get a bit busy so I usually call my order in and pick up.
                          The rest of their menu is a bounty of deliciousness... and I have never been disappointed with a meal there.
                          Good luck!

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: sunfox

                            8 dollars for banh mi?!?!?!?

                            I can get like, 4 banh mi @Che Cali for that!

                            1. re: ns1

                              Six... "mua 2 tang 1" at Banh Mi Che Cali.

                            2. re: sunfox

                              I have been meaning to try them because I'm desperate but the price sorta put me off of going there since I like cheap but excellent asian asian food. But many people seem to really like them.

                            3. Foie Gras on Bahn Mi? Where can you get that? Usually it's a pork liver based pate.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: bkbk

                                I meant pate but some people call it foie gras and wrote it by mistake.

                                1. re: Jolly

                                  Just an fyi Jolly, foie gras is the fatted liver of geese, and it's kind of a specialty item which is delicious in its own right. I can't imagine that people are selling banh mi sandwiches made of fois gras pate for $1.50, as true fois gras sells for around $30-50 per lb. However, most pate is not made from goose liver, but from other meats and poultry liver, including that of chicken and ducks. Pate is sort of the French gourmet equivalent of meat loaf. According to Julia Child, "The memory of a good French pate can haunt you for years. Fortunately they are easy to make, and you can even develop your own special pate maison. Do not expect a top-notch mixture to be inexpensive, however, for it will contain ground pork, pork fat, and usually veal, as well as cognac, port or Madieira, spices, strips or cubes of other meats, game or liver, and often truffles." (Mastering the Art of French Cooking, p. 564.)

                                  I'm really interested to see how your hunt for the best banh mi in town goes, and I hope you report back on how you like some of the recommendations you have gotten, to see how they compare :-)

                                  1. re: DanaB

                                    Yeah, it is pork pate but we sometimes just call it foie gras coz it is so rich and livery. Anything livery and porky is good.

                              2. Alright: history: I grew up in a Viet family, in Viet gang territory in East San Jose, heart of the Bay Area's viet community, and have eaten throughout SF heavily.

                                What I have to say is this: Banh Mi in the greater LA area is smokin', stunning, and loads, tons, far better than SF or the Bay Area. Best banh mi I've ever had, top 4, all in the greater LA area. But it's all in Little Saigon, in Westminster.

                                The best places are: Top Baguette (i'm not sure that's the right name - it's right by hanoi restaurant, famed for it's bbq pork sandwich - and unrelated to the SGV Top Baguette), Lily's Bakery, and one place that I can't for the life of me remember but is famous for its pork meatballs, which may be the best sandwich I've ever had in my life - a beast of soft, moist pork, halfway to pate, stuffed with little bits of noodles, and absurdly fresh pickles. Search for Professor Salt's historic voyage through banh mi in Westminster and Little Saigon - he's the one that found them all. Avoids: Lee's Sandwiches, which is decent, but basically a big-ass chain, and Banh Mi Che Cali, which has my favorite che in the universe, but some of my least favorite banh mi. You could club somebody to death with their baguette, easy, but as a sandwich instead of a weapon, I do not like.

                                As for nearer - be aware of the local communities. The banh mi places in Anaheim are all Cambodian run - that's because Anaheim is little Cambodia. They're tasty, but very different - less emphasis on fresh pickles and vegetables, more emphasis on fish flavors and sweet flavors. SGV is very heavily Chinese. Actually, the biggest concentration of Viet I know of around here are in Chinatown - the most halfway decent banh mi up here is there, at a place called Buu Dien.

                                But it's true that there's lots of bad banh mi out here. The biggest offender is some famed place in Silverlake called... JT's? JP's? Something - a massive, overstuffed, rancid, dead-dog-meat-loaf of a sandwich, with no discnerable fresh pickle or cilantro energy, and doused in sweet muck in a desperate attempt to hold of the inevitable decay.

                                I have an explanation, by the way. You want to know why LA proper has so few good banh mi places? It's because of the proximity to Little Saigon. Most of the Viet went down there, and most Viet in the area, I think, when they want good food, drive down there. It becomes a center. All the good stuff gets sucked over there. It's why there's so little good Chinese food in Chinatown - proximity to the SGV, where all the Chinese settled.

                                17 Replies
                                1. re: Thi N.

                                  Something I noticed was that the Cambodian banh mi really suppresses the pate flavor - but if you crave it, some of the places in Little Saigon - especially that place with the pork meatball (I'm looking for the address right now, actually) - have an absurd face-smashing hit of funky pate flavor, right up against the crisp pickle flavor and cilantro. It's like Lee Perry on headphones.

                                  1. re: Thi N.

                                    A great post -- but just a note that the Cambodian community is on Anaheim Street in Long Beach, not in the City of Anaheim.

                                    1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                      Sorry! That's what I meant. Anaheim Blvd. in Long Beach. Many apologies.

                                    2. re: Thi N.

                                      Excellent, this clarifies many things for me. I was rather horrified that I would have to settle for less in an area with so many vietnamese. I was mystified why I was having such crappy sandwiches since other asian food is excellent. I came to L.A. eager to open up my asian/mexican/central/south american cuisine taste sensations and am having a hit and miss with the experience. Well, that's why I read boards like this and cry out for help in the dark. :O

                                      I am going to focus first in Little Saigon with places that you recommend. And yes, Buu Dien was the only one I went twice whereas I never went back to any of the others.

                                      1. re: Jolly

                                        In general, LA is very enclave-centric. There are some exceptions but the vast majority of the brilliant food is in enclaves, and concentrated - and many enclaves are out of LA proper. Armenian Glendale, East L.A., SGV, Koreatown, the Central American corridor above Koreatown, Torrance/Gardena for Japanese, Little Saigon, Pico Jewish corridor, Little Ethiopia, Sawtelle area for Japanese - you have to travel. Disappointment is inversely proportional to car time, I think.

                                        In Little Saigon, other things to try are:

                                        Hanoi Restaurant for northern style stuff - she-crab soup, and spectacularly great fried yam-with-shrimp things, and good turmeric fish over dill.

                                        Brodard's for nem nuoung - pork meat balls.

                                        What cuisines have you had disappointments with?

                                        1. re: Thi N.

                                          Thanks, I truly appreciate your recs. I've been very disappointed in mexican/central & south american cuisine in general since my expectations were very high when I moved here.For example, I was very disappointed with Guelaguetza in Koreatown which was highly recommended.

                                          But I've been following the other thread concurrent to this that addresses these very cuisines and I'm gearing up to try these places that the knowledgeable people there are recommending. I saw ur post on there as well. Fried intestines, menudos, tongue nommmm. Basically I have been settling for likes of Loteria, Chipotle, Benitos's Tacos in the Weho area since none of the places I've tried in diffrnt areas are memorable, i just eat the cheapest and most hygienic when I have a craving.

                                          I am also having a hard time finding great persian food. I had better in DC.

                                          Unlike many SF people, I was rather bored with SF's food since I'd been there so long and have been eating very similar foods and it is a very small city. The scene is pretty much the same most of the time since most of my friends tho of diff ethnicities, were gay and I'm not much of a scene person.

                                          Most of us ventured outside of SF on some occasions, more frequently east bay but not so much s. bay. I am also not a huge italian/french food person tho I enjoy them, I mostly like asian/mex/cen/so., Indian, middle eastern/medittrn, types of food. But it was nice that we could try new places very easily and the prices for good food was pretty good. I miss the mission st taquerias' burritos. mmmm.

                                          1. re: Jolly

                                            I'm starting a new thread for you about this.

                                            1. re: Thi N.

                                              Thanks and I think it'll help newbies to L.A. to navigate this sprawling, confusing, and overwhelming place that can be L.A.. But so many places to explore in every way. I am currently reading a new fiction short story collection called "Los Angeles Noir". I recommend it. Very appropo and about all types of angelenos.

                                            2. re: Jolly

                                              Ah, voilà le problème. Other than Russian, there is no ethnic food worth eating in WeHo. It's too trendy and expensive for hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants to survive.

                                              Antequera de Oaxaca... Monte Alban... these are your go-tos for Oaxacan in LA. Thai Town has a number of excellent cheap Thai eateries -- you're not very far from Koreatown or Little Ethiopia, either.

                                              1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                Yes, Weho is a desert of any good hole in wall ethnic. Thank god I love Korean, Ethiopian, and Thai. I've been eating very well in these food. One of my fave is the spicy noodle/soup/dimsum place on Wilshire and Harvard. They have raw spicy crab too. They have a very limited menu but so good, I luv their garlicky kim chee which I scarf down before the food comes. Crowded w/Koreans mostly. I like rahel vegetarian, merket?, and others. I like that little Thai next to the 711, Sapp?? Samaluang?? I forget.

                                                Unfortunately, I've not really gotten into Russian and I don't know why. I saw Bizarre Foods/Bourdain Moscow and the food there looked amazing. I wonder if there are Russian food like that in Weho? Hmmm

                                                BTW, to some foodies out there that might have issues with my limited knowledge of the details of differnt cuisines - I don't know the details of the cuisines that I enjoy, I just like what I like. I don't consider myself a foodie or a food snob in any way. I will go for an excellent westernized version if I really don't like the authentic original.

                                                1. re: Jolly

                                                  here are the crucial old threads:

                                                  Professor Salt's:

                                                  And the glorious pork meatball banh mi (banh xiu mai) was the discovery of Das Ubergeek. It's at Banh Mi Chu Co.

                                                  All of their picks are about two levels over some of the more well-known places. All hail to the questing hounds.

                                                  1. re: Jolly

                                                    Dont ever apologize for what you like. In any case, at least on this topic, I think you know more than you realize.

                                              2. re: Thi N.

                                                you cannot leave hanoi restaurant without eating their bun cha hanoi

                                            3. re: Thi N.

                                              Two things to add: Thi, KP's Deli in Silver Lake is no more. It's true it was overstuffed, but better than most of the alternatives available in the area.
                                              Also, no one on this thread has mentioned the estimable Bahn Mi My Tho in Alhambra, discovered by TonyC, which had a good mix of all the essential components.

                                              1. re: Thi N.

                                                Thi said "the best places are: Top Baguette (i'm not sure that's the right name - it's right by hanoi restaurant, famed for it's bbq pork sandwich - and unrelated to the SGV Top Baguette)"

                                                Update: the Top Baguette on Bolsa in Westminster is a no fly zone now. It's changed hands sometime in the past couple of years, and their once-magnificent baguettes have augered into the ground like a spent SCUD missile.

                                                In Little Saigon, my go-tos are Banh Mi Cho Cu and Banh Mi Che Cali. Several others have opened since my old crawl, and I'm certain that old report needs a serious update.

                                                1. re: Professor Salt

                                                  Cho Cu is the current "best banh mi of my life".

                                                  1. re: Professor Salt

                                                    That is sadness over Top Baguette. Such sadness.

                                                2. I don't like the banh mi sandwiches at Banh Mi Che Cali. However, I do love their baguettes and that is the only thing I buy there.

                                                  I know that the OC is too far for you but the only place I get banh mi sandwiches is at Coffee Factory. The Vietnamese coffee (the one with sweetened condensed milk) there is tops and the sandwiches are the best - perfect proportion of meat to bread. It is not the big bready style of Lee's Sandwiches but more of a skinny French style baguette sandwich. I'm Vietnamese and that's where I get my fix.

                                                  Coffee Factory
                                                  15582 Brookhurst St
                                                  Westminster, CA 92683
                                                  (714) 418-0757

                                                  3 Replies
                                                  1. re: tdo

                                                    I'll check it out as well since I am encouraged by the thought that there are better banh mis out there.

                                                    1. re: Jolly

                                                      Previous Banh Mi thread here:

                                                      more recent 1 about cilantry here:

                                                      If you want to "sample" the fares offered by SGV, you better save a whole weekend:

                                                      My Tho
                                                      Hue Tai
                                                      Saigon's Sandwich
                                                      City Baguette
                                                      2 x Mr. Baguette
                                                      2 x Ba Les
                                                      2 x Che Cali
                                                      Baguette Du Jour

                                                      Last year, I did a quick tour of 4 well known banh mi shops in the East Bay.. I don't know if you SF'ers think of the East Bay but... definitely not as good as even the SGV.

                                                    2. re: tdo

                                                      Actually I've heard good things about Coffee Factory and have been meaning to try that place.

                                                      Just a note, I've had crappy meatball banh mis at Banh Mi Cho Cu. Jesus, they can't heat the damn meatballs up before they put them in the sandwich? That irritated me after a couple of times.