Nov. 2 2005 12:00 AM

K Sandwiches' fantastic Vietnamese street grub

I've now started this review three times. It's not that the subject is difficult; it's that I'm trying to find the best way to explain why I'm so obsessed with the banh mi (Vietnamese French sandwiches) served at K Sandwiches.

It's no big deal, right? A sandwich is just a sandwich? If that's what you think, you're likely the sort who finds Quizno's, Subway or Schlotzky's Deli acceptable. Maybe it's different for me because I was raised by inveterate New Yorkers who fed me chopped liver and corned beef on really good rye bread; I just don't see all sandwiches as being created equal. Some sandwiches are simply more equal than others.

What makes banh mi so special is the amazing balance and blend of flavors, and the freshness of the ingredients. To begin with, there's the bread. The rear of K Sandwiches is devoted to a bakery that turns out fresh baguettes and croissants daily. The fresh, crusty baguettes are the foundation of awesomeness upon which the banh mi is built.

To this bread a thin layer of sweet, Asian-style mayonnaise is applied, followed by your choice of meat, pickled carrots and daikon radish, fresh thin-sliced jalapeño and fresh cilantro sprigs. No other condiments are applied-nor are they needed.

The meat variations allow you to be as adventurous or as tame as you like. For the brave, options include pâte and bacon, sardine and tomato sauce, or pâte and pork meatloaf. If you're feeling less brave, you might choose grilled pork, grilled beef or BBQ meatball. And if all this is still sounding a little too weird, plain ol' roast beef, turkey, ham or tuna salad are also available.

Falling into the middle camp, my favorites are the grilled meats. The tuna salad is also very good, dressed with fresh green onions and citrus juice. I'd avoid the cold cuts, primarily because their flavor just isn't as interesting as the grilled stuff.

When you first bite through the chewy crust of the baguette, the sweet flavor of the mayonnaise hits your palate; for this reason, I like the grilled meats best because the smoky flavor of the barbecued meat offsets the sweetness of the dressing in a way that cold cuts don't. This also makes things much more interesting when you get the sour tang and crunch from the pickled veggies, and the blast of herbal spiciness provided by the cilantro and jalapeño. It's the proverbial party in one's mouth-sweet, smoke, sour, spicy. Perfection.

In addition to banh mi, K Sandwiches also offers croissant sandwiches. They look tasty, but I've been unable to break my banh mi fixation long enough to order one. The only other things I've sampled have been beverages, and they, too, are excellent.

A good one is the fresh soybean drink. Mildly sweetened, this is served over ice and is available with boba. If you don't normally care for soymilk, this just may convert you. Also good is the café sua da-espresso mixed with condensed milk and served over ice. This, too, is available with boba, but I'd suggest instead trying it with coffee jelly-gelatinous cubes flavored with coffee that get sucked up with the aid of giant straws.

Whenever I find a place that I really like, I usually try to speak to the owner to learn more about the food. I was really curious about these sandwiches and their origins, but I had a hard time finding anyone willing to talk to me.

I finally chatted briefly to someone who identified himself as the owner, but he wouldn't give me his name, explaining they're "not allowed" to talk to reporters. I have a feeling he wasn't really the owner; he looked about 16 years old. In any case, he informed me that sandwich shops like K Sandwiches are hugely popular in Vietnam. K Sandwiches was opened to satisfy the cravings of Vietnamese expats longing for a taste of home.

My reluctant mystery source went on to explain that while their popularity among the local Vietnamese population came as no surprise, they weren't expecting to be such a hit with non-Vietnamese folks. At that point, he ended the conversation, which is a shame because I could have told him why they're so popular: anyone can recognize a great sandwich when they taste one.

K Sandwiches is open seven days a week: 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Prices are impossibly low-the grilled-meat sandwiches, on a 9-inch roll, are $2.25, and nothing on the menu tops $4.

K sandwiches
7604 Linda Vista Road
Linda Vista


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