Little Saigon contains hives of bánh mì shops on every block, cranking out Vietnamese-French-style sandwiches. And with Tet, the lunar New Year that begins Feb. 3, now’s the time for culinary adventure. Hot baguettes emerge from towering ovens with a blast of yeasty heat nearly every half hour. Most bakeries offer house-made yolk-rich mayo, garlicky pâté, and exceptional charcuterie. All sandwiches come garnished with a tangle of do chua: crunchy pickled daikon and carrot, along with cool lengths of cucumber, thinly sliced jalapeño, and cilantro. The average sandwich is $2.75, so try them all. Can’t decide? Order the dac biêt—that’s the special.
1. Top Baguette
This comely bright orange and bamboo green bánh mì bistro has a granite “S” design set in the floor, a nostalgic nod to Vietnam’s curvaceous footprint. The owner, Mocha, favors the peppery tuna salad topped with a fried egg, but our favorite is the pungent lemongrass-infused barbecue beef, right. 9016 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, 714-379-7726.
2. Gala Bakery
This cheerful storefront specializes in slender baguettes that soak up the silky house-made chicken-pork pâté along with a drizzle of elegant, sweet basil-infused oil. Also delicious: the bánh mì gà, a light chicken salad. 14570 Brookhurst St., Westminster, 714-775-7327, and Gala Pit Bakery, 15022 Moran St., Westminster, 714-891-3358.
3. Bánh Mì Saigon
The smell of proofing bread draws perpetual lines to this no-nonsense, utilitarian purveyor of all things bánh mì. The fat, football-shaped loaves with moist, fluffy centers cradle the fillings like praying hands and cost only $5 for three. The special is a pepper-spiked amalgamation of succulent cold cuts. 8940 Westminster Ave., Westminster, 714-896-8782.
4. Thanh Tam
Housed in a strip mall with a billiard parlor by the same name (same owner, too), this working-class take-out joint makes a special for legions of hungry pool players, laborers, and businessmen: The gossamer baguette barely accommodates the thick slab of Spam, fried egg, and soy-bathed sliced pork. Forget wings and skins, this is true bromance fare. 14095 Euclid, Garden Grove, 714-530-1969.
5. Tip Top
It’s a bánh mì institution, and also a social hub with a wrap-around patio full of patrons nursing café sua da, Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk. When you hear the shrill metallic alarm, go pick up your sandwich, neatly packaged in Eiffel Tower-emblazoned paper. Order the juicy, chopped rotisserie chicken or savory barbecue pork. 14094 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, 714-530-9239.
6. Coffee Factory
French-pressed coffee serves as a form of communion for the steadfast parishioners of this noisy, crowded boîte, and just as many come with Eucharistic regularity for the sandwiches. Slender baguette lengths are toasted warm and crispy to order, along with the fillings. The dac biêt contains delectable fat-marbled cold cuts. The chao tom, filled with crispy shrimp cakes, also is delicious. 15582 Brookhurst St., Westminster, 714-418-0757.
7. Ba Le
This industrious little charcuterie and bakery produces more than a dozen different cold cuts on the premises. The house special is a tidy, tightly wrapped baton, a fastidiously layered porcine ensemble: pork roast, pâté, headcheese, bacon, and ham. 9152 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, 714-891-9424.
8. Tân Hoàng Huong
The continuously forming lines at this bustling, handsomely remodeled bakery are no match for the diligent sandwich production unit. In the sardine bánh mì, a house specialty, mild silvery fillets, rendered spreadable, meld with a tangy tomato-onion sauce that saturates the bread. 15972 Euclid St. #A, Fountain Valley, 714-775-7422; and 5015 W. Edinger Ave. #H, Santa Ana, 714-531-2488.
Big Business Baguettes
These giants of the bánh mì world crank out thousands of sandwiches a day and have multiple competing locations open 24 hours.
Bánh Mì & Chè Cali
Navigating this chaotic bakery is like being adrift in a water park wave pool on whitecap mode. Don’t panic: Move sideways through the eddies of customers with an eye on the counter and you’ll be rewarded with three large sandwiches for $5. The baguettes are papery, featherweight vessels. Barbecue and rotisserie fillings can be as dry as jerky, so stick with the special. 8948 Bolsa Ave., Westminster, 714-897-3927. More locations in Fountain Valley, Garden Grove, Westminster, and Los Angeles County.
If it were possible to tattoo the omnipresent Lee’s logo directly on the bread, this contender for world sandwich market domination—which opened its first store in Westminster—would cheerfully do so. We recommend the ba chi, No. 3 on the menu: velvety fat-ribboned cured pork with briny vegetables, and bread that collapses into crackling shards. 13991 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, 714-636-2288. Locations throughout California. leesandwiches.com.
Photograph by Jessica Boone