A slice of Little Saigon

Scattergood is a Times staff writer.

A baguette, still warm from the oven, its golden crust trellised with cracks. Sandwiched inside, a bright green thatch of cilantro and jalapenos, a tangle of pickled carrots and daikon, a smear of pate. Loaded between that, maybe a layer of rich barbecued pork or zesty meatballs, even spicy sardines. This is banh mi, an addictive Vietnamese street food and the culinary pay dirt of French colonialism.

Across Westminster’s Little Saigon, old men gossip and read the morning copy of Viet Bao at metal cafe tables, sipping glasses of strong coffee laced with sweetened, condensed milk and crunching into the day’s first banh mi.

There are shops selling the community’s unique fast food everywhere, tucked between coin-op laundromats and fruit stands loaded with jackfruit and durian, hidden like gifts in a concrete horizontal landscape of strip malls.


Local cooking instructors Diane Cu and her partner of a dozen years, Todd Porter, who live in nearby Costa Mesa, spend nearly as much time in these little shops as the old men. (They have an entire section devoted to banh mi on their website,

The Vietnamese coffee shops and French bakeries form a patchwork quilt of both cultures, offering boba and croissants, spring rolls and beignets, plantains and pennywort tea. It’s easy to see why they’re so inviting, why loyal patrons scout out their preferred cafes -- and stay away from others.

“I think my dad knows where we go,” says Cu, explaining that her father avoids her favorite shops so that Cu won’t tell her mother where he is and cut into his coffee shop time.

Cu, whose family moved from Da Nang, Vietnam, to Southern California when she was a child, and Porter, a native of Oregon, explain that a great banh mi starts with a great baguette. The best are lighter than many European-style baguettes, baked with a percentage of rice flour along with the wheat flour.

Fresher than fresh

In Westminster, the biggest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam, most banh mi shops are also bakeries. Often tiny storefronts deepen into long rows of ovens, where freshly baked baguettes commonly are pulled out every few minutes.

“An hour and a half is considered old,” Cu says. “Anything that’s not hot is half-price.” Even so, often baguettes are priced 2 for 1 -- as are the banh mi in many shops.


The price of banh mi is also one of its key components: Most sandwiches go for under $3. Even that’s considered a lot in Westminster, but prices have risen lately with the rise in food prices (especially flour), Cu says. “$2.50 a sandwich is outrageous,” she says, remembering days when the sandwiches cost less than $2.

After the baguette, the fillings are the most important aspect of the sandwich, a savory combination of Vietnamese, French and California components. Spicy Chinese-style pork barbecue laced with lemon grass and pickled daikon; baguette and pate; cilantro and jalapeno. It’s the perfect post-colonial hybrid.

If you can’t make it to your nearest banh mi shop, it’s easy to make your own. Sure, it won’t have the same atmospheric setting (your baguette just pulled warm from a metal cart, the caffeine-fueled camaraderie), but it beats getting stuck in traffic or having to wait in long lines.

Making banh mi is more a matter of assembly than cooking, especially when you go with an easy filling of sardines (a classic banh mi ingredient) instead of a more labor-intensive barbecue. A single baguette yields four generous sandwiches -- or one long one, if you want to have a banh mi party.

Spread the bread with a thin layer of mayonnaise, another of prepared pork liver pate (both ingredients signal the French influence), then break up whole sardines -- those packed in tomato sauce are favored -- with a pair of chopsticks. Cu points out that although most Vietnamese will keep the little bones intact, it’s easy to remove them if you like.

Then load the sandwich with pickled carrots and daikon, slices of cucumber and jalapeno, and a generous amount of cilantro and mint. Cu and Porter, who just got back from a trip to Vietnam to visit Cu’s relatives, say that although mint isn’t customary in Southern California banh mi, it’s common in Vietnam, as is Vietnamese coriander (rau ram).


Slivered carrots and daikon, quick-pickled in brine for less than an hour, are a standard component in banh mi, although Cu saw them replaced with fresh green papaya while in Vietnam. (“We saw cilantro once in Da Nang,” says Cu, of the fresh herb so prevalent in Southern California banh mi.)

A few more sprigs of cilantro, stems and all, then a dash of soy sauce and you’re done.

As Cu talks, Porter has been busy brewing Vietnamese coffee on the other side of the kitchen, using one of the metal coffee filters the couple has stacked by their Breville espresso maker.

A few tablespoons of coffee (Cafe du Monde, a New Orleans brand made with chicory, is popular in the Vietnamese community; Porter also likes to use Ethiopian beans or an espresso blend) go into the little filters, which go for about $4 at an Asian grocery store. The coffee is then brewed straight into a glass filled with a pour of sweetened condensed milk, where the coffee drips to form a gorgeous layer of black over the pale ivory of the milk.

For hot coffee (cafe sua nong), Porter nests the glass into a tumbler filled with hot water to maintain the temperature, then stirs the milk and coffee. For iced coffee (cafe sua da), he mixes the drink, then pours it over ice.

A glass of milky coffee, a sardine banh mi, the crusty baguette loaded with cilantro, chiles and fresh mint from their garden. Can you make it differently? Of course, says Cu. Banh mi is post-colonial comfort food: The sandwiches are by their very nature adaptive, changing with the territory, reflecting seasonal ingredients and taking on the personality of whoever makes them.

“I would never diss what your mom makes,” Cu says. “My mom doesn’t make it the way I do either.”





Where to find banh mi in SoCal

Most real banh mi lovers know about Lee’s Sandwiches ( drive-through banh mi! -- 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 banh mi shops that are not well known. Here are a dozen of our favorites, listed in alphabetical order.

Banh Mi & Che Cali. This chain makes a consistent, balanced sandwich, with terrific bread and tasty fillings. With a dozen banh mi 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).

Banh Mi 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 banh mi. The croissants and pate chaud are also top-notch. 14520 Magnolia St., Westminster, (714) 891-3718. $1.75 (for banh mi made with rolls) to $2.25 (for those made with baguettes).

Banh Mi Saigon. Nestled in another of the seemingly obligatory strip malls, Banh Mi Saigon is a tiny storefront attached to a bakery. Long lines advertise the fantastic baguettes this shop turns out with happy speed. The banh mi 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, pate chaud and eclairs, palmiers and croissants. There’s a small selection of fine banh mi, 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 banh mi 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 banh mi 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, $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 banh mi 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 gateaux and croissants, huge beignets fried to order, and an espresso machine and burr grinder behind the counter. The banh mi are excellent, as are the beignets and bo kho (beef stew with basil and lime). (Check out their elaborate wedding cakes.) 10161 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, (714) 839-1099, $2.75-$3.25.

Sandwich Express. This San Fernando Valley shop makes 14 banh mi, including one made with fried egg and another with the traditional pate 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 banh mi, European-style sandwiches, pennywort tea and terrific pate 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 banh mi, 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 banh mi shops, this hip vegan-friendly Atwater Village restaurant has five banh mi 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, $5.75-$6.75.

-- Amy Scattergood


Sardine banh mi

Total time: 20 minutes, plus pickling time for the vegetables. Japanese cucumbers are found at Japanese markets, including Marukai and Mitsuwa.

Servings: 4

Note: From Diane Cu and Todd Porter.

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons salt

1/2 cup peeled and coarsely grated carrots

1/2 cup peeled and coarsely grated daikon

1 24-inch baguette

4 teaspoons mayonnaise

2 tablespoons pork liver pate

2 (4-ounce) tins sardines in tomato sauce

1 Persian or Japanese cucumber, thinly sliced on the bias into 1/8 -inch rounds

1/4 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves

1/2 bunch fresh cilantro with stems attached

2 whole jalapenos, thinly sliced

Soy sauce to taste

1. In large bowl, mix 1 cup of warm water, the vinegar, sugar and salt until dissolved. Add the carrots and daikon and marinate for about 1 hour (or longer, up to 2 days, for more flavor).

2. Slice the baguette into 4 (6-inch) sections and halve each lengthwise.

3. On each of 4 baguette halves, spread 1 teaspoon mayonnaise and one-half tablespoon pate.

4. Add 1 to 2 whole sardines to each sandwich. Mash the sardines, spreading the fish across the baguette with a fork.


5. Add 1 tablespoon of pickled carrots and daikon, a few slices of cucumber, several mint leaves, a few sprigs of cilantro and jalapeno slices as desired to each sandwich. Sprinkle with soy sauce and top with the remaining sliced baguette. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 370 calories; 17 grams protein; 44 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 14 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 81 mg. cholesterol; 1,390 mg. sodium.


Cafe sua da (Iced Vietnamese coffee)

Total time: 10 minutes

Servings: 1

Note: From Diane Cu and Todd Porter. This recipe calls for a Vietnamese coffee filter. Alternatively, use a 2-ounce shot of espresso or 2 ounces of strong coffee made in a French press or other drip coffee maker. To make hot Vietnamese coffee (cafe sua nong), follow the recipe up to the last step, omitting the ice (to keep the coffee hot while filtering, place the coffee glass in a larger bowl filled with hot water).

2 tablespoons sweetened condensed milk

1 1/2 tablespoons coarse ground coffee (use a strong roast suitable for espresso)

1. Bring a small pot of water to boil over high heat.

2. Pour the sweetened condensed milk into an 8- to 10-ounce glass.

3. Unscrew the top of the coffee filter. Place the coffee in the filter, then replace the top, screwing it tightly to compact the grounds. Fit the filter over the glass and pour in just enough hot water to wet the coffee. Allow it to hydrate for 30 seconds. 4. Loosen the filter screen screw at least 2 full rotations so the water can pass through the coffee. Pour hot water to the top of the filter, replace the filter lid and wait for the coffee to pass through; this should take about 5 minutes.

5. Remove the filter and stir the coffee and condensed milk. Fill the glass with ice and serve immediately. Each serving: 125 calories; 3 grams protein; 21 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 3 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 13 mg. cholesterol; 53 mg. sodium.