We take the inexpensive bánh mì for granted. This wonderful Vietnamese sandwich isn't supposed to cost more than a few bucks. Almost any bánh mì in the San Gabriel Valley — with any number of meats, pâtés and pickled vegetables stuffed in a freshly baked baguette — will set you back three paltry dollars. As if that weren't enough, Bánh Mì Che Cali offers a buy-two-get-one-free deal every day of the week. When someone makes a bánh mì for over $5, some people are skeptical. Angry, even.
As our mother likes to remind us, the upper classes in Vietnam have been known to feast on sandwiches slathered in foie gras pâté and other luxurious meats, while the poor make do with cold porridge and colder phở. Closer to home, a small but growing number of restaurants are reaching beyond the traditional bánh mì, using higher quality ingredients and non-traditional stuffings. Cases in point: both The Spice Table and ink.sack's bánh mì are well over $3. For this edition of Food Fight, we see which of the two serves the better bánh mì for its price.
The Spice Table in Little Tokyo serves a number of sandwiches at lunch. The Cold Cuts sandwich is the restaurant's take on the classic bánh mì đặc biệt: Vietnamese ham, pate, head cheese, pickled daikon and carrots, cucumber, and cilantro. Everything here is made in-house, including the bread, a thin, crusty baguette that can go up against the best of baguettes in the San Gabriel Valley. The whole sandwich stands up against San Gabriel's finest: All of the elements of the traditional bánh mì sandwich are here, just kicked up a noticeable notch in quality. The pâté is airy, the cold cuts are lean and refined. For $8 in Little Tokyo, this is a solid bánh mì sandwich, and it beats battling the big rigs on the 10 East.
ink.sack's version costs $5 for about 4 inches of sandwich, making it an even $10 if you want to have enough for lunch. The shop's spin on the traditional bánh mì is to generously layer slices of pork butt and pork belly in the bread, topping it with with chicharrónes and pickled vegetables. A local bakery supplies a soft bread used for all sandwiches at the shop, which means, unfortunately, that you don't have the satisfaction of a crusty Vietnamese baguette to pull everything together. Ultimately, the bread is the sandwich's undoing: The pork is quite good, if a little too thick, but the crunch of chicharrónes, as great as it is, doesn't replace the crunch missing from the bread. As a simple pork belly sandwich, this may work. As a bánh mì sandwich? Not so much.
The unofficial third contender, watching from the sidelines, is your everyday, pedestrian bánh mì joint. As one may predict, they are the unofficial winners of the bout: You simply can't beat a $3 bánh mì sandwich nearby at Buu Dien or, even better, at the aforementioned Bánh Mì Che Cali. Between the two official contenders, Spice Table wins. What Father's Office and Golden State have done for burgers, Spice Table may well have done for bánh mì sandwiches. That's something we can't take for granted.