Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
There’s nothing new under the sun, only variations. El Bulli, NOMA, Javier Plascencia or Davin Waite, they are all, at most, new forms or old flavors offered in new ways. In other words, they are variations. And that is what Baguette Brothers (4896 Convoy St.) in the Convoy District is all about: variations on a theme, in this case, banh mi .
My first nomination for the coveted title of “CityBeat World Fare Best Sandwich on the Planet” was the banh mi at Cali Baguette Express, specifically the No. 1 Cali Special. It was a great sandwich and a classic example of the banh mi arts. Go further into its menu—or, for that matter, that of just about any banh mi joint—and what you find are the usual suspects: BBQ pork, pate, etc. Their menus are mostly the same.
Enter Baguette Brothers with a menu bearing little resemblance to traditional purveyors of banh mi. Take, for example, the “Belly Flop,” a banh mi of roasted pork belly featuring crispy glazed skin, a sweet chili sauce and all of the depth of fatty flavor that explains why anyone who does not eat bacon can be immediately identified as potentially evil.
This is not traditional banh mi, not close. And yet it riffs on the theme. It has the pickled carrots and daikon. It has the cilantro. It has a hit of jalapeño. It has a perfectly competent baguette. And traditional or not, it has that incredible pork belly. It may well be my new best sandwich on the planet.
At the other end of the spectrum, the most traditional of their offerings is the “Grasshogger”—a pork banh mi flavored with lemongrass and a fish sauce glaze. It is a highly competent, if unadventurous, take on a pork banh mi. And yet even this most traditional of offerings is a little bit different: lemongrass forward and with a strong hit of fish sauce.
Baguette Brothers ventures into cross-cultural, Asian-fusion land with the “Gangnam Style” banh mi. The filling is basically Korean BBQ-style bulgogi ribeye beef with lightly caramelized onions, a bit of kimchi and a swipe of deeply umami aioli on the baguette. Despite the tendency of Asian fusion to not make sense, this one does. The flavors work—belong—together.
Baguette Brothers serves more than banh mi, though not much more. The fries, whether simple, with bulgogi beef or roasted pork belly, are still just kicked up fries. The wings, though, are excellent, offered with honey sriracha , lemon pepper and fish sauce. No matter how stinky you think fish sauce might be, as it fries into these wings it becomes sweet with a profoundly savory umami and incredibly round flavor profile. It may be the best dish in the place.
Baguette Brothers surely isn’t something new and groundbreaking. It deals in established genres and its variations call on well-trodden turf. But the way they put those flavors, those cultures, that well-trodden ground together feels a lot like something new, something not seen every day, something not seen here.