I know this is going to be hard to believe, but despite the fact that I was practically hysterical over the glories of bánh mì when I first tried one, I hadn't had another one until a couple of weeks ago, mostly because word of mouth has all the good bánh mì in the Valley. Taking advantage of a work meeting in El Monte, I decided to stop on the way back into town and and pick up a few bánh mì for lunch (and dinner with Mark later). One quick Google search later, I learned that there are something in the vicinity of 5 million bánh mì places in the Valley. Instead of trying to navigate the myriad options, I sought the counsel of Sinosoul, who pointed me in the direction of Baguette City in South El Monte.
Baguette City is tucked away in a little strip mall in South El Monte, inconspicuous and austerely decorated - it's clean and bright enough to escape "dive" status, but I think it qualifies as a hole-in-the-wall.
Baguette City offers 12 varieties of bánh mì, but I stuck to the script and opted for the grilled pork, giving my order to one of two lone ladies behind the counter. Five minutes later, I was on my way, bánh mì in hand.
Once I got back to my office, I plucked one of the pork sandwiches out of my bag of goodies and dug in. Ahhhhh....that's the stuff. The baguette was soft and a little chewy on the inside and very slightly crusty on the outside. I really liked the spiciness added by the slices of pepper distributed throughout, but the heat didn't overwhelm the sandwich. Best of all were the refreshing flavors and crunch of the pickled radish/carrot shreds, cucumber, and cilantro. There wasn't a whole lot of meat packed in the middle of the sandwhich, but I was enjoying everything else so much, I didn't mind. And the pork that was included was great - slightly sweet and juicy little nuggets. It was a perfect, satisfying, refreshing lunch - one that filled my stomach but didn't leave me in a food coma.
A week later, I found myself back in El Monte, again with a craving for the Vietnamese staple. This time around, I headed to Mr. Baguette in Rosemead for my bánh mì fix.
I was eagerly anticipating this trip, as I'd heard from several sources that the chain's fresh baked baguettes were "flawless." Pulling into the parking lot, it was already clear that this would be a different experience than my Baguette City visit - Mr. Baguette was bigger, brighter, with more options.
That being said, flashier does not necessarily = better. I'm not sure if it's different when you dine in, but when I got back home, I opened my bag of bánh mì (future band name?) to find a baguette filled only with chunks of meat and then, these:
Mark and I decided to supplement our sandwiches with cilantro that we happened to have at home, but...really? No cucumber, no radish, no cilantro. Just carrots? Uh, Mr. Baguette? The accoutrements are my favorite thing about bánh mì. And the flavor of the pork, while adequate, was just not as good as the pork at Baguette City - I missed the sweetness.
With regard to the bread, I want to give Mr. Baguette the benefit of the doubt since it was about half an hour before I was able to sample my sandwich, but while I found the baguette to be tastier than Baguette City's offering, it was almost too crusty for my liking, wrecking the roof of my mouth.
That assessment may come across a little harsh - objectively, the bánh mì from Mr. Baguette was decent, and if the chain opened up a branch near my office or home, I'd probably be there one or two times a week. But in a head-to-head comparison, this was just no contest. In Round 1 of the battle of the bánh mì, Baguette City just absolutely routs Mr. Baguette. Hopefully Bánh Mì My Tho and Bánh Mì Che Cali, the two sandwich makers I plan to visit next, put up more of a fight.