Sept. 27 2013 06:24 PM

Mother-and-son Vietnamese place in City Heights is a great spot for bánh mì

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Saigon’s barbecued pork banh mi
Photo by Mina Riazi

Whether it's a two-ton muffuletta or your standard egg-and-cheese, a good sandwich is always a good idea. Just ask Homer Simpson, Liz Lemon or anyone else unfalteringly dedicated to the sammie: Something magical happens when you stack stuff between bread. 

But a memorable sandwich is more than just the carby loading of a few ingredients. The best sarnies go beyond trends and fancy fixin's. Classics like the tuna melt and the chip butty—an ultra-rich British 'wich made with fries and buttered white bread—are time-tested faves in it for the long haul.

The Vietnamese bánh mì is one such culinary mainstay. In Ho Chi Minh City, the subs are sold from storefronts, pushcarts, motorbikes and shoulder poles. They're the ultimate on-the-go grub, but they smell slightly of French colonialism. After all, it was Frenchies who introduced baguettes to Vietnam during their nearly century-long intervention.   

At Saigon Sandwiches & Deli, a chubby baguette holds together a rich smattering of ingredients. In the No. 5 menu item, strips of carrot, cucumber and daikon join cilantro, jalapeño, onion and barbecued pork. The City Heights deli (4133 University Ave.) is owned by mom-and-son duo Helen and Tom. They've been preparing bánh mì sammies since 1985 and make many of the ingredients, like the garlic mayonnaise, in-house. 

The barbecued pork, Tom says, is the deliís most popular sarnie. Itís followed closely by the chicken and beef options. Pork egg rolls and steamed buns are other savory offerings, and thereíre boba smoothies for your sweet tooth. 

Though the hole-in-the-wall deli provides a few indoor tables, most patrons get their subs to-go. I eyeballed the shop's snacks while waiting for my sandwich. Shrimp and cuttlefish chips and Vietnamese sweets are some of the standouts. Meanwhile, a bucketful of brooms and other out-of-place knickknacks for sale kind of make Saigon feel like an oversized pantry. 

At last, the plastic bag bearing my pork bánh mì was slung unto the counter. I don't understand people who wait awhile before digging in—the thin-cut veggies are bound to lose their crunch and the bread its bouncy oomph. I wanted to eat my sammie right then and there.

As with many foods, the boundary separating a good sandwich from sandwich stardom is a narrow one. Sometimes it's simply a matter of using a crustier loaf or a little less spread. I'm happy to say that each element of my bánh mì was pretty spot-on. 

Crackly topped but chewy-soft on the inside, the baguette flaunted just enough silky mayo. The bread was also slightly warm, which I enjoyed. A little warmer and the veggies might've lost their crunch, but they stayed crisp throughout. Tom says the pork is pan-fried after being marinated, which explains its distinct, jerky-like texture. 

At less than $4, Saigon's barbecued pork bánh mì makes for a delectable, inexpensive lunch. The eatery's odd hours—7 a.m. to 5 p.m.—mean you'll have to satisfy your late-night cravings elsewhere or suffer a soggy sandwich. And, remember, the deli is cash-only. As frustrating as that is, I promise your luscious sub will be well worth the inconvenience.

Write to minar@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.

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