Where to find bánh mì in SoCal
Most real bánh mì lovers know about Lee's Sandwiches (leesandwiches.com)-- drive-through bánh mì! -- with 15 branches in Southern California and more in Northern California and the Southwest. (If you have a craving at 3 a.m., hit the Lee's in Westminster, which is open 24/7.) But there are many bakeries and bánh mì shops that are not well known. Here are a dozen of our favorites, listed in alphabetical order.
Bánh Mì & Che Cali. This chain makes a consistent, balanced sandwich, with terrific bread and tasty fillings. With a dozen bánh mì choices (barbecued pork, sardine, meatloaf, headcheese, meatball), you might want to take advantage of the buy-two-get-one-free offer. And if you're still hungry after that, you can pick from the many desserts ("che" means dessert; "Cali" is short for California). 8450 Valley Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 288-5600; 13838 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 534-6987; 8948 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 897-3927; 15551 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 839-8185; 647 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 293-8396 (among other stores).
Bánh Mì Cho Cu. Wedged between an immigration office and a dry cleaners in a Westminster strip mall, this tiny shop turns out lovely baguettes -- a buttery, light crumb and crackly crust -- every half-hour and 11 kinds of bánh mì. The croissants and pâté chaud are also top-notch. 14520 Magnolia St., Westminster, (714) 891-3718. $1.75 (for bánh mì made with rolls) to $2.25 (for those made with baguettes).
Bánh Mì Saigon. Nestled in another of the seemingly obligatory strip malls, Bánh Mì Saigon is a tiny storefront attached to a bakery. Long lines advertise the fantastic baguettes this shop turns out with happy speed. The bánh mì are good; the baguettes are glorious, with a light, buttery crumb and a crisp crust that shatters when you bite into it. 8940 Westminster Ave., Westminster, (714) 896-8782. $2.50.
Boulangerie Pierre & Patisserie. Walk in the Little Saigon shop and you'd swear you somehow got teleported to Paris: Look at the cases filled with gorgeous, meticulously decorated cakes and pastries, pâté chaud and eclairs, palmiers and croissants. There's a small selection of fine bánh mì, all on the fantastic housemade baguettes. (Check out the shop's second delivery van, a rusted-out VW Beetle with a surfboard tied to the roof.) 14352 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 418-9098; 801 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 571-0108. $2.75-$3.75.
Gala Bakery. This popular sandwich shop has two locations in Little Saigon (the one on Brookhurst Street and Hazard Avenue houses the bakery that bakes for both shops). The bread is soft and chewy, the bánh mì fillings are ample and flavorful; the pastries are terrific, as are the mung bean smoothies. 15020 Moran St., Westminster, (714) 891-3358; 14570 Brookhurst St., Westminster, (714) 775-7327. $2.25-$2.75.
Gingergrass. Although purists may argue that a $9 bánh mì is a contradiction in terms, the sandwiches at this Silver Lake restaurant may be worth expanding your definition. This upscale version is a glorious foot-long sandwich -- choose from chicken, pork, beef or grilled tofu -- served on crunchy bread the restaurant gets every morning from Mr. Baguette in Rosemead, and served with chips and slaw. (The pork, roasted to succulent perfection, is outstanding.) Order the Vietnamese coffee, which is served in the metal filter, the milk infused with vanilla beans. 2396 Glendale Blvd., Silver Lake, (323) 644-1600, www.gingergrass.com. $8.50-$8.95.
Lily Bakery. Not to be confused with Lily's Bakery, this little neighborhood bakery and retail shop is in a Long Beach strip mall. The housemade baguettes are light, with a crisp golden crust. They have only five bánh mì to choose from, but they're good ones, particularly the pork barbecue. And try one of the terrific mung bean-jicama fried croquettes in a tray near the cash register; according to the folks at the bakery they don't have a name, but they're awesome. 1171 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 218-7818. $2.
Lily's Bakery. This bustling cafe is a bit more expensive and has a more continental feel than its smaller strip mall cousins, with cases filled with gâteaux and croissants, huge beignets fried to order, and an espresso machine and burr grinder behind the counter. The bánh mì are excellent, as are the beignets and bò kho (beef stew with basil and lime). (Check out their elaborate wedding cakes.) 10161 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 839-1099, www.lilysbakery.com. $2.75-$3.25.
Sandwich Express. This San Fernando Valley shop makes 14 bánh mì, including one made with fried egg and another with the traditional pâté filling. The housemade baguettes are light and chewy, the fillings generous. There's also an extensive boba shake selection (flavors include taro, avocado, green bean and mango) and a newly installed, prominently displayed self-serve frozen yogurt machine (with toppings). 18575 Sherman Way, Reseda, (818) 757-7698. $2.50-$3.25.
Tip Top Sandwiches. The fantastic, slender baguettes -- the crusts are beautifully slashed and crunchy -- come out of the ovens about every 10 minutes; the fillings are plentiful, fresh and flavorful. With 10 kinds of bánh mì, European-style sandwiches, pennywort tea and terrific pâté chaud, Tip Top is hard to beat. Fortunately, a second Tip Top is in the works for Rosemead. 14094 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, (714) 530-9239. $2.50-$3.25.
Top Baguette: This little shop makes a dozen bánh mì, as well as excellent avocado shakes and the owner's (whose nickname is "Mocha") favorite blended mocha. The fillings, generous and flavorful (the lemon-grass-spiked barbecue beef is a standout), trump the bread, which is more vehicle than star. 9062 Bolsa Ave, Westminster, (714) 379-7726. $2.50-$2.75.
Viet Noodle Bar. Far more upscale (and pricey) than the traditional Little Saigon bánh mì shops, this hip vegan-friendly Atwater Village restaurant has five bánh mì to choose from: white fish and dill, shiitake-tofu, lemon-grass organic chicken, spicy sardine and vegan tofu basil. It doesn't make its own baguettes but has them made from its own recipe at a San Gabriel bakery. Stay for dessert: The fresh ginger soy curd alone is worth the trip. 3133 Glendale Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 906-1575, www.vietnoodlebar.com. $5.75-$6.75.
-- Amy Scattergood