We have, we think, followed the evolution of the Vietnamese sandwiches called bánh mì throughout their evolution in California, from the mingy sandwiches stacked like cordwood at the earliest delis, through the specialist phase, and onto the mega-bakeries whose neon flash Hot Baguettes the way the signs at Krispy Kreme flash Hot Donuts. Bánh mì are good – supercharged hoagies stuffed with herbs, pickles, and things like charbroiled pork, vegetarian ham, or best of all, what is usually described as the dac biet, house special: several kinds of Vietnamese charcuterie, and a splash of mayonnaise-style sauce. Bánh mì may be the only good thing to come out of a century of colonialism in Vietnam.
We appreciate the fresh, crusty baguettes at the new places, we really do, as well as the endless variety, the drive-thru window at the Rosemead location of Lee's, and the homemade meats to come out of the back kitchen of Mr. Baguette. We like the way we can pop into one of the branches of Ba Le at lunchtime and emerge with a sandwich and a cup of cafe sua da in 30 seconds or less. But we've recently been going back to the cramped storefront where we first learned to love bánh mì, a faded deli counter hidden in the back of a Chinatown mini-mall, and we're remembering what we loved about the bánh mì to begin with: the crisp yet soft texture of a decent Parisian baguette, the interplay between the herbs, the chiles and the variously textured meats, and and most important, the essential schmear of liver pate, whose organy funk binds the sandwich together into complex, multitiered unit of Vietnamese pork whose greatness both exalts and transcends its humble, cheap ingredients. Buu Dien was our favorite the first time we conducted a bánh mì survey 15 years ago, and it is ready to reassume the throne.
Buu Dien: 642 N Broadway, Chinatown; (213) 617-8355.