If you blink, you'll miss Ô Bánh Mì. It's situated inside a gentle curve of Hyperion Avenue, right after Lyric and before that one intersection where everyone decides to turn left during rush hour and back up traffic. Its relative seclusion embodies a quality that makes L.A. a particularly good food town -- the idea that you can pass a restaurant on your daily commute hundreds of times, but perhaps never noticed it until just last week.
Ô Bánh Mì, a cozy, inconspicuous Vietnamese sandwich shop, is place designed for locals — it's tiny, the menu is small, and it's open four hours a day, from noon until 4 p.m. (which is a recent development; it used to only be open three hours a day). It's also an absolute treasure, serving fresh bánh mì sandwiches, awesome caffeinated drinks from an old-school hydraulic espresso machine, and friendly, come-as-you-are service.
Ô Bánh Mì's standard-bearer sandwich, the traditional thit nguôi Vietnamese cold cuts sandwich, is a fresh and filling lunch for $7.50. The baguette is fresh; chewy on the inside and sharply crunchy on the outside, leaving that sweet rawness on the roof of your mouth that one comes to expect from eating bánh mì.
Leaving that sweet rawness on the roof of your mouth
The cold cuts include sliced pork, pork sausage, head cheese, and nice smear of pâté. Hot peppers (which you can pick off) leave a lingering burn on the lips. Other sandwich options on the menu include lemongrass chicken, baby squid, sardine, and lemongrass tofu for the vegetarians.
Sure, there are other, cheaper options for bánh mì, especially if you wander into the San Gabriel Valley. But where Ô Bánh Mì really shines is on Pig Roast Fridays. Once a week, and until they run out, they beautifully roast an entire pig and serve the moist, tender meat and crispy skin in the form of delectable roasted pork bánh mì. This is worth your time, and worth the trip.
The pig is roasted in a caja china, aka a "Cajun microwave," a wooden roasting box with a metal liner that allows for the cooking of large animals in a relatively short period of time. It's essentially a Dutch oven that cooks the pig evenly, producing moist meat and crackling skin. Caja china, which is Spanish for "Chinese box," supposedly came from Cuba. What exactly makes these boxes "Chinese" is a mystery, though food anthropologist Sid Mintz posits that in Latino/Caribbean culture, it's common to call something novel or exotic chino or china ("Chinese").
The end product is brought into the shop at precisely noon, with some fanfare. There's usually already six or seven people waiting, who have already put in their orders. The pig is carried in on a roasting pan and promptly dissected; the meat is assembled into sandwiches and passed out to the waiting, hungry customers. The meat is smoky, tender, and sweet. The skin is completely rendered free of fat, leaving only a taut piece of crispy, slightly charred, jerky-like vellum. The accompanying dipping au jus is a wonderful complement, savory and slightly fruity, with a hint of licorice.
Pro tip: if you're going for the roasted pig, get there early. I wandered in one Friday a little before 2 p.m. only to be told they had run out.
Ô Bánh Mì is located at 1997 Hyperion Ave. and is open every day from noon until 4 p.m. Roasted pig is on Fridays. Cash only.