Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Epic Bánh Mì crawl along Valley Blvd @ San Gabriel Valley

Before anyone start jumping up and down about the carbo overload, let's sit back and access on why I want to go through the madness of Bánh mì (in my fantasy world, this would be the name of my 2nd wife).

HUGE WARNING: It's a long review with visits of 7 places along Valley Blvd in San Gabriel Valley, east side of LA county. If you want a cheatsheet, go down towards the bottom of this entire section of review where I will give the recaps and final analysis of the 7 places I have visited.

Why in the world would I be obsessed with Bánh mì sandwiches? In my college days, I was a poor lad that didn't have much money to spend on finer things, especially on food. I cherish the value of the American dollar and would maximized it to its full potential. You can imagine that my buddy Kevin hated shopping with me at Costco when I demanded he bring his Cadillac because his car got a bigger trunk and we would be on a Saturday afternoon run for that Donkey Kong-sized box of Hot Pockets.

My world changed in an instant and the quality of my life improves when an ex-coworker of mine bought some supermarket made Bánh mì sandwiches for lunch. When I asked him how much, he told me to keep my money in my wallet as he played it off like a major baller. When I nagged enough, he told me that these 8 inch sandwiches were bought at a Vietnamese market in Westminster for 65 cents each.

My jaws dropped. I have never looked back since then.

For a quality Bánh mì sandwich, most places used a baguette sandwich bun and have all sort of veggie ingredients mixed with the choice of meat. The usual suspect for these veggies would include cucumbers, carrot, cilantro, onion, Chinese radish, and jalapeno pepper. To fill up the sandwich, the meat would includes from various pork pate, spam meatballs, grilled or roasted pork, shredded chicken, or just leave it alone with plain vegetable sandwich.

For my little Bánh mì crawl, I picked 7 of the more frequent sandwich shoppes along Valley Blvd in San Gabriel Valley area. I skipped Lee's Sandwiches because I detested them and would never acknowledged them until they improved on the quality of the meat for their sandwiches.

Let's break it down on the positives and negatives of each shop with a little recap at the end.

Stop #1: Ba Le French Sandwich & Bakery

Scene: I supposed this place should have been a standalone bakery, but we are finding out it's a front for these sandwich shop these days. There is no dining area to speak of, where it's practically a take-out joint. The service was not bad, but having two cute girls working is always a plus for the gents.

Positive: Their #2 special of guess the meat sandwich is awesome! They don't have a name for that #2 special which I'm guessing it's two forms of pork pate and ham on the sandwich. Ba Le French is very generous on their veggie toppings, especially with the radish, carrot, and cilantro. Very tasty for a guess the meat special.

#2 Special

Check out their regular pork pate sandwich also. That was quite good with most of the sandwiches for less than $3.

Negative: No ambiance, no decor. Price of those sandwiches justify the low maintenance of the place. They pretty much want you to take the sandwich home and eat.

Ba Le French Sandwich & Bakery
1426 S Atlantic Blvd
Alhambra, CA 91803
(626) 308-3003


Stop #2: Banh Mi & Che Cali

Scene: Yay! It's a restaurant. You also can ordered just the sandwiches if you like as they have a register for take outs and small bagged items. One of the three stops in this epic crawl that have a dining room area.

Positive: When I first came here, they had a buy-one get-one free special on their ice coffee. To top it all off, they also had a special where if you buy two of their sandwiches of $2.50 or higher, you get the third sandwich for free. Some of the "economy priced" sandwiches are in smaller portion. However, if you are willing to spend a little bit more for the bigger sandwich, you can get a free sandwich out of it for the meal tomorrow.

Thit Nuong (Grilled Pork Sandwich)

My favorite sandwich is the Thit Nuong (Grilled Pork Sandwich) which was very tender and succulent. I also love the flavor of how they grill the pork for the sandwich. The toppings was very heavy loaded.

Negative: I didn't like their Ga sandwich (chicken) which was way too dry. One thing that didn't sit well with me was also their bread. It was too hard and crunchy. The way on how the bread was breaking, you would have thought you were eating a salad because you can break the bread like a crouton. I also hope that they can slice the pepper and cucumber into much more smaller pieces because the big portion was way too much to swallow in those big pieces.

Banh Mi & Che Cali
647 W Valley Blvd
Alhambra, CA 91803
(626) 293-8396


Stop #3: Banh Mi My-Tho

Scene: The place looked more like a mini mart or a liquor store. There is no way you can grab one of the two table situated outside of the place because some regulars would just socialized in front of the store all day long. It's best to go home with the sandwich or eat it in your car.

Positive: Long lines means something is about to get good. It definitely did not disappoint after what it seemed eternity when the sandwich was finally ready to be picked up. The BBQ Meatball sandwich is delicious! The meatballs are cut into smaller one quarter of a size with the vegetable toppings adequately sliced thin that made it even more enjoyable to eat. The bread wasn't as impressive as some of the baguette bakery stores, but the meat more than make it up.

BBQ Meatball Sandwich

The service was a major plus here as the young man manning the counter was polite to everyone and was on his toes taking orders and sending the sandwiches to the appropriate customers.

Negative: Not really anything major to report. The place was just tiny and because people are standing around waiting for their food next to the refrigerator section, which made it impossible to grab any drinks or get any other small items to go along with the sandwich. In fact I was thirsty afterward. I blamed it more on the loitering customers who are waiting for their orders than Banh Mi My-Tho. However, the small space was the contributing reason for that problem because they had missed out on potential extra sales.

Banh Mi My-Tho
304 W Valley Blvd
Alhambra, CA 91803
(626) 289-4160


Stop #4: Saigon's Bakery & Sandwiches

Scene: This place has all the reminiscences of a bakery. They have a full operation of baking ovens and a station counter where you can see the line cooks constructing those delicious sandwiches. Surprisingly, only two of these sandwiches have make their operation out in the open. As in for the dining area, only three small tables for a sit down. Like most of the others, it's strictly a take out joint.

Positive: This shop is my favorite Bánh mì sandwich shoppe at this installment of the crawl. Hands down they got best baguette where they bake it fresh, one of the more affordable prices at $2.00 (it used to be $2 even with sales tax included, but they increased the price by 17 cents), and one of the better deal in town. If you buy three of the sandwiches, you get a free loaf of long 24" baguette to take a home. Also, one of the friendliest and fastest service in customer service which was another badge of honor for them.

Free loaf of Baguette when you purchase three or more sandwiches

One of my favorite sandwich was their Vietnamese Ham sandwich which was loaded with the right portions of the assorted condiments and ham in the soft, chewy baguette. The ice coffee is a also cheap and delightful companion to whichever sandwich you get. Majority of the time, you will see customers walking out with at least three sandwiches, a free loaf of baguette, and an ice coffee.

Ham Sandwich

Negative: They need to have more room or space for dining. Maybe set up an outdoor patio? Otherwise, no major complaints from me.

Saigon's Bakery and Sandwiches
718 E Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 288-6475


Stop #5: Bale Banh M Coffee and Sandwich Shop

Scene: This place looked like a tiny donut shop with nothing more to speak of. Seriously, I'm not even fronting on this one. There is nothing here that will suggest a sandwich shop. Other than the sign, it would be a pass for me in most days. No dining area and really bare on the selections in the menu. Depressing to come here and makes you want to get out as soon as possible.

Positive: I'll give them this much, the meat loaf sandwich is a hit with me. Often times, this place get high raves from others for the excellent quality in the meat in the sandwiches and some good Vietnamese treats in the store.

Vietnamese Meat Loaf Sandwich

Negative: Oh, where do I start?

I have bad vibes about this place even before I made my payment for my order of sandwiches. It seemed like I had interrupted one of them from watching some sort of V-soap on a mini TV they have in the back. It took a while for them to make any of these sandwiches as I was just lounging around the small shop resembling a donut shop.

The sandwiches themselves have very skimpy amount of both the condiments and the meat. The baguette overshadows and swallow up the entire sandwich where you wouldn't noticed the meat or condiments sticking out from the baguette (not a problem with other places, except for Mr. Baguette). Usually, I complained about too much condiment from other shop, but this place really dialed it down on everything to make sure it is cutting every corners to keep the overhead cost down.

Comparing to other places, there is minimal foot traffic to speak of. I can tell they wanted me out there ASAP when they pretty much slammed the sandwiches in the bag and gave me the cue to go. It's like I have interrupted them at a bad crucial time. Man, I'll never go there again if I knew I am intruding on them from an important V-soap scene.

Bale Banh M Coffee & Sandwiches
725 E Valley Blvd
San Gabriel, CA 91776
(626) 571-5436


Stop #6: Banh Mi & Che Cali

Scene: Just like the same namesake west on this street, this place also have a big dining room with plenty of tables to enjoy your food. The only issue I have with this place was the sanitation of this place. Otherwise, it's a solid place to sit and eat at this pit stop.

Positive: I love their "Special" combination sandwich. I suspected just like others, it tend to stack with ham and pork pate to along generously with all the veggie condiments.

The Special Combination Sandwich

Negative: Just like their sister location, the buns was way too hard and was breaking like a salad crouton. It's not chewy like most of the others. I'm not expecting soft and chewy baguette, but at the same time it shouldn't be hard & crunchy like a toasted bread. The service could be a little bit more smoother. The construction of the bread is like a conveyor belt like in Lee's Sandwiches where people print up the order and constructed the sandwich right then & there.

The wait time was almost as long as Bale Banh M, but at least those ladies at BBM was a bit peeved when I walked in. These guys at Banh Mi & Che Cali had no excuses and they were really slow at churning out those sandwiches.

Overall, their prices were okay. If I wanted a better price and much more smoother service, I would hit up their identical namesake at Alhambra's location over this one.

Banh Mi & Che Cali
8450 Valley Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770
(626) 288-5600


Stop #7: Mr. Baguette

Scene: Probably the cleanest local and most pleasing in terms of ambiance and decor for the sandwich shoppe on this tour. That's probably the big positive there on this venture.

Positive: Other positive on this final destination? I do love their iced coffee here, as also with their baguette and croissant as well. Considering they were also doubling as a bakery, it would be a good point to make sure they were immaculate at churning out these sandwiches. Their operation is much smoother run than their neighbor a few blocks away, Banh Mi & Che Cali.

Saigon Sandwich

Their Saigon Sandwich with a few variety of meat was also one of my favorite sandwich at this locale. Perfect place to dine in and relax for a quick meal.

Negative: Mr. Baguette charges an arm and a leg for their sandwiches. Their iced coffee was the one going over two bucks, so they set them up as the top echelon in the Bánh mì world. The other negative that I was very down on them was the fact they are too stingy on the veggie condiments in their sandwiches. Now, the meat are getting smaller and the prices are going higher. It does not bode well for them in the long term for me as a customer going in there.

Maybe they can justify it by charging extra for ambiance. For the people want to take it home and there will be plenty of take out orders, it really doesn't make sense for the small portions anyways. Definitely not the best value for the price they are charging for the sandwiches.

Mr. Baguette
8702 Valley Blvd
Rosemead, CA 91770
(626) 288-9166


The Breakdown:

Best Bread: Saigon's Bakery & Sandwich
Worst Bread: Banh Mi & Che Cali (both shops)
Best Veggie Condiments: Ba Le French Bakery & Sandwiches
Worst Veggie Condiments: Banh Mi & Che Cali (both shops)
Best Meat or Use of the meat in sandwich: Banh Mi My Tho
Worst use of meat: Mr. Baguette
Best Overall Service: Saigon's Bakery & Sandwich, Banh Mi My Tho
Worst Overall Service: Bale Banh M Coffee and Sandwich Shop
Best Overall Price Value : Saigon's Bakery & Sandwich, Banh Mi & Che Chai (Alhambra)
Worst Price Value: Mr. Baguette

Best Overall: Saigon's Bakery & Sandwich, & Banh Mi My Tho

1. Saigon's Bakery & Sandwich
2. Banh Mi My Tho
3. Ba Le French Sandwich & Bakery
4. Banh Mi & Che Cali (Alhambra)
5. Banh Mi & Che Cali (Rosemead)
6. Bale Banh M Coffee and Sandwich Shop
7. Mr. Baguette


Wandering Chopsticks said...

You beat me to it. Been compiling a round-up too. But haven't been as dedicated as you to hit up all of them.

Banh Mi Che Cali has my favorite bread. Light, airy, and buttery. The key is to lightly toast it before eating. I've never had any that were hard as croutons.

My Tho has really flavorful fillings. Their bread doesn't quite do it for me, but their rice plates are cheap and good.

I go to Mr. Baguette for the chocolate croissants, but they were out of them the last two times I went. So annoying.

Right Way to Eat said...

Hey Wandering Chopsticks,

You should get that up when you can. That would be an interesting read and a great guide. I went with two other friends on one portion of the trip and an another friend on a different occasion. One of them like Ba Le French in terms of bread and the other two like Banh Mi & Che Cali on Rosemead, just like you did.

One of these days, I'll do something overall about these places. This time around, strictly a banh mi visits and the only ones we agreed to like among all of us were Banh Mi My Tho and Saigon's. Go figure!

pleasurepalate said...

Oh my, just reading your post, I felt like I had to jog a few blocks (which I didn't do, of course) :-D

Right Way to Eat said...

Hi Pleasure Palate,

Here's a funny thing, I actually was thinking about walking down Valley Blvd for this banh mi crawl. When we walked from Mr. Baguette to Saigon's Bahn Mi & Che Cali which a few block away, we knew we couldn't walk it.

One time while I was taking photos of restaurants on Valley Blvd, it took me 90 minutes to walk from Rosemead Blvd to Garfield Avenue (I stop of course in taking photos along the way). I doubt I will ever match that stamina again.

Unknown said...

So you went on that banh mi crawl huh? Looks good, I should hit up that Saigon place on San Gabriel and Valley sometime. Heck, I do live on San Gabriel.

See you at dinner bro.


Right Way to Eat said...

Hey Danny,

Great Dinner! You should hit up more of these places. They are in YOUR neck of the woods. No excuses! LOL

Unknown said...

I just had Saigon for dinner on Friday and I have to say you're pretty spot on. Although I like the buy 2 get 1 free thing at Banh Mi Che Cali, the sandwiches at Saigon is just that much better. That free baguette was pretty tasty as well. Thanks for the rec!

Right Way to Eat said...

Hey Danny,

I'm glad you finally get a chance to test out Saigon Bakery. It's my favorite among Valley Blvd for the banh mi sandwiches.

This was a better deal than Banh Mi & Che Cali on Alhambra in terms of value for the savings. Yeah, the baguette was awesome on Saigon's.

dealinhoz said...

Mike, of all the places, I've been to 3 of them. And like you, I favor Saigon's Banh Mi. For me, it's very easy to get to since I sometimes shop at that asian megaplex right behind it (Shun Fat). I always get their egg banh mi which is tasty. Nice job on the crawl, you've set yourself back $11.

Right Way to Eat said...

Hi EatDrinkBeMerry,

oh believe me, it cost more than that for the entire crawl. For one trip here, yeah, it's around that price. Thanks for the tip on the egg banh mi sandwich!

BTW, what are three places you have visited (Saigon's and one of the Banh Mi Che Cali)? What's the other one?

edjusted said...

Nice. But it's too bad that Banh Mi Che Cali got the low ratings. Down in OC it's my favorite. I wonder if they're even the same chain. I think the one in Fountain Valley doesn't have an "&"...

Right Way to Eat said...

Hey Edjusted,

I have heard little Saigon's BMCC is better than SGV. I liked Alhambra's branch, but not so much on Rosemead's store. I haven't tried San Gabriel's store for comparison yet.

I think I might be in your hood soon for the OC banh mi crawl. Stay tuned!

Anonymous said...

I was at Ba Le Sandwich at Atlantic today. I like their bread. And the store is cute with all the desserts and meat to making your own sandwich.

Right Way to Eat said...

Hey Kobie,

Glad you enjoy it. Thanks for the update!

Anonymous said...

Excellent write up! Thanks to your list, I've added a couple more banh mi joints to my list. Good work :-)

Right Way to Eat said...

Hi gastronomy,

Thank you very much! I hope you do write about those places soon so I can read all about it!

oddlyme said...

Big thanks to you for this posting!

I've been wanting to try Banh Mi, but was overwhelmed by the top 3 or 4 that are mentioned consistantly - which of them to choose from my internet research?

Then I found your blog, read your comemnts and knew - it had to be Saigon's Bakery and Sandwiches. I'm new at this, so I needed friendly help. I'm a sucker for good bread. And the price still looked great.

So I grabbed my hubby and went. We ordered the three sandwiches to get the free baguette. Unwrapped our sandwiches, took a bite, and we both went "Wow!" So light. So flavorful. The bread ROCKED, and our free baguette was still warm!

So I know this orig. post is old. But my gratitude is new! Many thanks for your good carb work : )