Monday, June 06, 2005

Banh Mi Che Cali - Westminster

Even as the humble but still intriguingly exotic banh mi sandwich finds its way to the mainstream, the original mom-and-pop operations, like Banh Mi Che Cali, shall continue to be the bastion against its homogenization and domestication.

Still, you have to credit Lee's Sandwiches franchise in introducing it to the average American tastebud. Its gleaming stores and English-speaking employees makes these Vietnamese sandwiches accessible to even the casual foodie and soccer mom. In Irvine, California, it is strategically placed between a Trader Joe's and an In N'Out.

To its credit, Lee's takes away the uncertainty, wierdness and funk out of getting banh mi at your average Little Saigon banh mi shop. But Lee's banh mi pales in comparison to the ones served in those shops. But ask your average O.C. resident about Little Saigon, and they'll probably have a vague recollection about a swath of exits on the 405 between Irvine and Long Beach, and how they zip by without a clue of the culinary wonders that lie beyond the exit signs. If you are neither Asian, Vietnamese, or a Chowhound, I doubt you'd be "slumming" it in Westminster, especially for a sandwich. True as they say, "nothing ventured, nothing gained."

In my humble opinion and for my money, I haven't had a better banh mi than those served up by the non-English speaking gals at Banh Mi Che Cali. This location on Brookhurst and McFadden is the least intimidating of the two stores. The other, located on Bolsa and Magnolia, is more crowded. There's always a clutterf#$% of people pushing and shoving to the front. The employees there are, not surprisingly, ruder and have no patience especially if you're not Vietnamese. They'll actually ignore you!

Eventhough I've mastered the art (or is the "sport") of pushing myself into the front and ordering there, I find that the location at Brookhurst and McFadden is my new preferred place for three reasons. First, it's not as busy, making the servers nicer. Second, it's where the bread is actually baked, resulting in a fresher banh mi. Third, whenever I order the BBQ pork banh mi, they stuff the sandwich so full of meat that it's insane they can still manage to charge what they charge.

The deal's a steal! Buy two hoagie style banh mi's for $1.50 each and you get the third free. Essentially, it's 3 banh mi's for $3. No one ever just buys one of the hoagie style banh mi's, so you shouldn't either. But if you really only need one, you might as well spring the extra quarter (you Rockefeller!) for the baguette banh mi ($1.25), which comes in a longer, slimmer loaf of bread.

After deciding what kind of bread you'd like, you now must choose the filling, my Padawan learner. A dozen to choose from, you have! For the beginner, you can't go wrong with these three choices;

1. Thit Nuong - (Just say "BBQ Pork", which will have ruddy pieces of pork.)

2. Ga - (Just say "chicken", which will have shredded chicken.)

3. Dac Biet - (Just say "Combination", which will be a combo of Vietnamese cold cuts (ham, etc.). Be warned, this one will have pate in you can request "no pate" if you don't care for that liver taste.)

All the banh mi's will have veggie fillings of cilantro, sliced cucumber, jalapenos, and shredded pickled daikon and carrots. They also may or may not have a squirt of homemade mayo and a seasoned soy sauce.

There are, of course, a myriad of banh mi shops in Westmister, all of them worthy. Professor Salt's Banh Mi Crawl Report is a useful guide for those in the mood for further exploration.

Wherever you go, I think it's imperative to try it at least once from these independent shops. Who knows, maybe within this decade, the banh mi will enter into the American culinary lexicon, like the taco. But before that happens, and before Yum! Brands has the opportunity to bastardize it, I hope everyone gets a taste of how it used to be.

Banh Mi & Che Cali Bakery
(714) 839-8185
15551 Brookhurst St
Westminster, CA 92683


At 10:49 AM, Blogger Diamond Dog said...

I am so glad you took a picture of the restaurant so I can find it. I always have wanted to try this place based on your recomendations.

I am just bummed that you didnt take any pictures of the sandwiches!

At 1:32 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

I know. Only after I ate the sandwich did I realize I had not taken a picture. My hunger pangs got me into a zombie-like tunnel vision..."must eat sandwich must eat sandwich"...

At 10:12 PM, Blogger OC Paul said...

Thanks for the awesome review! I agree with you entirely that they are better than Lee's. My colleagues and I drive over to the one at Bolsa/Magnolia from Costa Mesa just to get the sandwiches during lunch but will try the other location. Part of the chaos is half the fun though!

At 12:44 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Thanks OC Paul! Chaos equals turnover equals fresh ingredients! True that!

I still go to the Magnolia/Bolsa branch a lot as well...they have fresher cream puffs! Yummm..

At 2:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yum! Had the Thit Noung and the Combo here, and took a Ga as the free third to eat later. That and a can of coke cost $4.20.

Can't beat that.

At 2:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh I forgot to mention. While I do have Lee's when there is no other choice, their bread is just not the right texture. Its too chewey and not flakey. I guess that doesn't matter. Of course there is some eye candy there.

But for sandwich runs, Banh Mi Che Cali is the true one.

At 9:38 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

unChain Me,

Banh Mi Che Cali is definitely *THE* place isn't it? A triple threat of freshness, value, and quality.

At 4:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a third Banh Mi Che Cali, it's on Valley and Delta in Rosemead. They have ten or so tables and they DO speak English.

At 11:21 PM, Blogger OC Paul said...

The BBQ Beef is the perfect introduction to amateurs in your lunch group that don't want to try the Dac Biet. It's a seasoned ground beef patty cut in half to fit the roll or baguette with lemon grass and Asian mayo. Very juicy. Better than any burger out there!

At 11:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heh heh... This brings back memories. Although I was raised eating banh mi, I loathed it. I mean, eating it every time you go to the beach or whenever grandma's too busy to cook, you get sick of it. Anyway, I'm a Californian-born Vietnamese kid and then dumped into the dreary state of Virginia, where there is banh mi, but not as fresh or zesty as the ones in Cali. -sigh- I do miss the boba drinks serves everywhere there.

At 3:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was a write-up in the OC Register recently about this place along with Pho 79 (Brookhurst and Hazard).
I tried Banh Mi after I had devoured a delicious bowl of pho at Pho 54 which is actually diagonally across the street from Banh Mi. Anyways, I am shocked that I did not find out about Banh Mi sooner. I ended up getting the BBQ Pork sandwich and it was delicious, world's better than Lee's which I enjoy as well. The bread was crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside. The pork was perfectly cooked and not fatty at all.
Went back the other day for the desserts after eating Pho 79. 3 for $3. Can't beat it. They were delicious!
There is also a recent review of this place (different location) that is on Chowhound showing the different desserts. I am a fan, too bad that Lee's is much closer.

At 4:16 PM, Blogger Happy Camper said...

I had my first banh mi baguette sandwich a few weeks ago. a co-worker brought me one to try from a bakery in San Gabriel. I liked it so much a started doing google searches for them and found this blog. So I told my wife all about them and she was very interested to try them as well. So today we went to Banh Mi Che Cali for lunch with our son. The sandwiches were great! what a great find, four sandwiches(No. 21 baguette) and two bottles of water, $8 and change, A great bargain. Thank you for posting up this great place to eat :D

At 1:35 AM, Blogger Big Brother said...

Guys, seems like you just found your ticket to heaven. I'm a Vietnamese born in Vietnam and now living in Little Saigon, so I guess I can fill in the blanks...
First of all, the bread is made with less flour than the usual baguette, that's why it's so soft, fluffy on the inside and so crunchy on the outside. The Pate is a french influence, and don't get gross out because foi gras (that expensive stuff they use on Iron Chef America) is actually duck liver. so pate is a delicacy, actually. Uhm, iono anything else to fill in. The BBQ pork is dosed with one spoonful of sweet fish sauce. The Mayo is not really special, it's actually margarine sold in tubs. Banh mi Che Cali is exactly how they make it in Vietnam. Lee's sandwich is FAR, FAR off from the actual stuff because the bread is so thick and hard, you can hit a baseball w/ it. aniway, one banh mi goes great with a nice cold coke or some boba drinks.

At 10:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I work with a vietnamese lady in Whittier and she bought us a baguette #21. I love the taste and the freshness of the veggies. The taxture of the bread was perfect. I tried Lee's after but it's not even close to Banh Mi.

At 5:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I orders some of "banh out/coun". The flower grind from fresh grain. "suppost to". They need to imporve the flower. When I order some plain banh out from marker tase more chewy than that. The one I order from this shop the flower take like old rice.

At 5:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I order some kind of rice cake roll with ground pork inside. " I belive they call is "banh out/coun"
The flower not fresh at all. When you take the food it taste like a flower grind from old rice grain. When I order some from market it taste much better.

At 8:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah most of these places are just a hangout spot for fobs to play cards, drink asian coffee, and have an reason to get out of the house. du ma.


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