"The banh mi sandwich is really the only good argument for colonialism," wrote American humorist Calvin Trillin. He wasn't making light of colonialism—he was trying to express the sublimity of the sandwich. The banh mi (in Vietnamese, literally "rice flour bread") is arguably the world's greatest bicultural hybrid, created when Southern Vietnamese at the turn of the 20th century adapted the basic bread-and-spread of the French colonizers to Vietnamese tastes.
My obsession is the egg banh mi. Along with a sweet Vietnamese iced coffee, which all shops offer, this sandwich is one of the greatest breakfasts on Earth. I've devoured them at dozens of San Diego's banh mi joints—either op la (fried, unscrambled) or trung chien (scrambled and fried). The results of my attempt to narrow to the two best may surprise. The ubiquitous K Sandwiches and Cali Baguette Express chains didn't even make my top five, and neither of the two finalists is located in the heart of San Diego's Little Saigon district.
BaLe French Sandwiches in Mira Mesa (9396 Mira Mesa Blvd.) is one of the originals in San Diego. The bread is a hefty Vietnamese-style French roll from Le Chef bakery in Clairemont and the clearest expression in San Diego of the Vietnamese ideal: toasted to order, exterior smooth and crackly, interior light and fluffy. Cucumber slices, cilantro and pickled carrot and daikon strips are fresh, with hot peppers on the mild side. The op la here (ordered fried hard by request) is equally light and fluffy. For only $3, you get a lot of scrumptious egg banh mi for your buck, and BaLe is understandably the favorite of a Vietnamese friend of mine.
Unlike the perfunctory service you get in many banh mi shops, Banh Mi San Marcos (706 S. Rancho Santa Fe Road) is all smiles and heart. The bread is brought in every morning from Little Saigon's Paris Bakery. The baguettes aren't as fat as the fluff-monsters at BaLe or as thin and chewy as the homemade ones at Cali Express. Here they're flash-toasted very hot for a crisp exterior and soft, but not overwhelming, inner fluff. The veggies are as fresh as BaLe's but more flavorful, the peppers slightly hotter and the op la egg is pan-fried and seasoned with salt and pepper, so it's not as mild as the egg on the BaLe sandwich. There's also a bit more mayo and Maggi (Swiss salty vegetable) seasoning on the bread, but not enough to overpower, as in some shops. For 59 cents more than the sandwich at BaLe, you get a heavy dose of nom power.
The winner: Banh Mi San Marcos. There's a gestalt to their egg banh mi that makes it my favorite: a perfect balance that creates an experience greater than the sum of its parts. If the banh mi is "the only argument for colonialism," the egg sandwich at banh mi San Marcos is the only argument for San Marcos. And it doesn't hurt that it's served with love.