Perfumed with the aroma of dark roasted coffee and freshly baked bread, banh mi shops -- Vietnamese sandwich cafes -- are a familiar sight in certain local Zip codes. But the sandwiches they serve -- baguettes laden with Asian-style cold cuts -- while a staple in Vietnam for decades, are still a long way from the mainstream here.
That may change, though, with the recent openings of Mr. Baguette in Rosemead and Baguette Express in San Gabriel. The immaculate, glassed-in dining rooms of these trendily designed shops attract young professionals and students who lounge at the tables sipping soy-based smoothies, ice-blended mochas or sparkling French lemonade. The efficient, fast-food-style service and smart logos make both restaurants seem imminently clonable. And why not? The beloved Vietnamese standards served in these shops should play well to a wider audience.
Although Mr. Baguette and Baguette Express serve authentic, French-influenced Vietnamese dishes, the proprietors have made it a point to bridge cultural culinary gaps. Instead of the untranslated menus often encountered in Little Saigon, Mr. Baguette posts large, colored photos to guide banh mi neophytes. Both shops write each sandwich description in English with Vietnamese names following. And both have added "European-style" baguette sandwiches, such as roast beef or ham and cheese.
The heart of great banh mi is the right bread. So both restaurants mix, proof and bake their baguettes from scratch. The skinny loaves emerging from their ovens almost hourly are dead ringers for the airy baguettes you can pick up in a neighborhood bakery in Paris.
Bryant Tang, owner of Mr. Baguette, credits his two American-raised children for inspiring his endeavor. Like the casual theme restaurants his teens love, his shop emphasizes a motif: French, in this case. The decor includes wrought-iron Parisian cafe chairs, a small garden and a glass display case filled with house made pates and head cheese.
Tang recently acquired a master of charcuterie certification in Dijon and now oversees the making of French and Vietnamese cold cuts in his restaurant's huge kitchen.
As for the sandwiches, the Mr. Baguette Special, a banh mi classic known as dac biet, is a hoagie loaded with thinly sliced ham, cha lua pork loaf (think an Asian mortadella) and a smear of pate. The dozen or so sandwich choices also include grilled beef (piled with thin slices of garlicky marinated meat) and shredded chicken roasted Vietnamese style. There's also a vaguely ham-like soy loaf. The crisp, salad-like garnish of shredded daikon, carrot, cilantro and (optional) jalapeno is essential to this and every other banh mi.
For dessert you can go European with a light creme caramel or Asian with sweet rice and bean pudding in a rich coconut sauce. Tang's coffee is a fine blend of French and Italian coffees and, whether drip or iced, does not have the bitterness often found in the coffee in traditional banh mi shops.
Baguette Express owner Daniel Ngo became an American resident at age 13. Growing up with Subway, El Pollo Loco and the like, says the former banker (who also owned a Chinese restaurant for five years), helped shape his idea for a multi-branch restaurant.
Ngo intends to blend the convenience of a fast-food restaurant with high-quality, made-to-order food. The shop prepares 6- and 12-inch sandwiches in full view of customers, allowing for modifications and special requests. Sandwiches are made with the best charcuterie Ngo can procure, including a beautiful lean Black Forest ham and an elegant French Canadian pate.
Among the sandwiches on offer, Baguette Express' dac biet is a careful layering of Vietnamese-style ham and cold cuts embellished with pate spread like butter over the baguette. The No. 2 sandwich is made with wafer-thin slices of a house-made pork cold cut reminiscent of pancetta but with Asian seasoning combined with Vietnamese-style ham. Another good choice is the roast chicken filling, infused with garlicky-sweet marinade, that seems to have been invented to complement a baguette.
Daily specials such as barbecued pork or "siu mai" sandwiches occasionally reflect Vietnamese cuisine's links with Chinese food. In this case, the siu mai sandwich isn't actually stuffed with dumplings; it is a deconstructed version with a layer of deftly seasoned ground meat.
Recently, Ngo hired a baker who prepares buttery brioche with a hint of orange blossom water, as well as croissants and beignets. His repertoire also includes cappuccino mousse cake and tiramisu.
The shop's espresso machine pumps out brew that's served iced or hot, Vietnamese-style with sweetened condensed milk. That's already a bit of a departure from the traditional drip coffee of a banh mi shop, so it's not a surprise to learn that servers will gladly make a cappuccino or an Americano, instead. It's another of the small touches that brings Baguette Express and Mr. Baguette closer to the mainstream.
Location: 400 E. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 280-8883.
Price: Sandwiches, $1.50 to $4.25; iced blended drinks, $1.75 to $3.25.
Best dishes: Baguette special (dac biet), roast chicken sandwich, "siu mai" sandwich.
Details: Open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. No alcohol. Parking lot. Cash only.
Location: 8702 E. Valley Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 288-9166.
Price: Sandwiches, $1.50 to $2.75; iced blended drinks, $1.75 to $2.75.
Best dishes: Dac biet sandwich, roast chicken sandwich, iced coffee.
Details: Open 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. No alcohol. Parking lot. Cash only.