Welcome back to Highly Opinionated, an ongoing series where Eater’s editors delve into one specific, oft-debated food favorite in Los Angeles. Previously, we discussed the city’s best New York-style pizza, Italian deli sandwiches, Korean barbecue, beef phở, and breakfast burritos. This edition takes a closer look at the legendary Vietnamese sandwich: bánh mì đặc biệt.
For true Vietnamese sandwich aficionados, it’s all about the bánh mì đặc biệt. While grilled lemongrass pork (bánh mì thịt nướng) has its merits, as do runny-yolked eggs seasoned with Maggi (bánh mì trứng ốp la), the bánh mì đặc biệt, often simply translated as the “house special,” is the classic upon which to judge the quality and commitment of an establishment.
While Vietnamese-style sandwiches can be found on menus across the Southland at finer dining establishments like Alice Waters’s Lulu, as well as more casual spots like Gjusta in Venice and even at chain restaurants like Mendocino Farms, the bánh mì đặc biệt is primarily sold in Vietnamese delis. These fast-casual shops specialize in on-the-go fare and usually offer a dozen or so varieties of bánh mì advertised on picture menus in Vietnamese and English.
The heart of the bánh mì đặc biệt is the combination of cold cuts, often ham, steamed pork sausage, and head cheese, tucked inside a crusty-golden baguette. Contributing to the sandwich’s cohesion is a double punch of pork pate and Vietnamese-style mayonnaise, the former’s consistency and funk marrying with the latter’s richness. Pickles — the ratio of carrots to daikon, the size and shape of each, and the balance of tangy to sweet — are essential for the bánh mì đặc biệt’s balance and punch. While it might seem like fresh chiles, cucumbers, and cilantro are easy to get right, the amount of each and the range of shapes and sizes can complicate matters. And then there’s the baguette, whose temperature, crispness, and ratio of crust to filling can make or break a sandwich.
While some better delis can nail a few of these elements, it takes a true specialist to get every single one right.
The overall favorite: Hue Thai Bakery & Deli
Upon walking into Hue Thai Bakery & Deli in Rosemead, diners are greeted by the smell of freshly baked baguettes resting on cooling racks and the laughter of gossiping staffers behind the counter. Garvey Avenue, the commercial vein that runs east to west in the San Gabriel Valley, is lined with strip malls like the one where Hue Thai is located. Look past the deli’s aging facade and bare-bones decor to find the city’s best bánh mì đặc biệt.
The first item on the menu, the bánh mì đặc biệt at Hue Thai is constructed on a loaf of house-baked bread. Sandwiches can be made on either a squat French roll or a narrow baguette — the staff recommends the latter for maximum crispness and minimal filling. Whichever you choose, the bread is served pleasantly toasty and deftly smeared with scratch-made pate and mayonnaise.
Next, the bánh mì đặc biệt is loaded with a trio of cold cuts. The mild ham and chả lụa (steamed pork sausage) plays well with the head cheese’s cartilage-heavy crunch. The omission of cucumbers proves to be an expert move, as the vegetable’s water content tends to dilute flavors without imparting enough snap. The sandwich’s finishing touches, thinly-shaved jalapenos and evenly distributed carrot and daikon pickles, makes this bánh mì đặc biệt the one to beat. 8968 Garvey Avenue, Rosemead, CA, 91770. Cash only.
The second-place pick: My Dung Sandwich Shop
It can be easy to miss My Dung Sandwich Shop (pronounced “me yoong”), the cramped market/sandwich spot on Ord Street in Chinatown. The easygoing business serves as a community hub for neighboring residents. It is a place to pick up a quick bite to eat, along with the latest edition of the Vietnamese-language newspaper Người Việt and staple provisions, as the neighborhood’s last full-service grocery shuttered in 2019.
Before heading inside to order, peek behind the banana bunches dangling outside the shop to scope the sandwich menu. The half dozen options cover the standards, including tender xíu mái meatballs and grilled pork and beef, and an airy yet substantial baguette toasted to an inviting crisp provides the foundation for every bánh mì. The shop’s owner, Chinh Le, says that he buys the loaves from a family in Orange County. For the bánh mì đặc biệt, a duo of cold cuts including ham and chả lụa is tucked inside the warmed bread, along with a balanced mix of well-seasoned carrot and daikon pickles. A swipe of just-funky-enough pate pulls the sandwich together mightily. 314 Ord Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90012. Cash only.
The wild card: Lokal Sandwich Shop
Don’t be fooled by the coffee shop vibes and mish-mash decor at Lokal Sandwich Shop. Those able to overlook the quirky letter board dedicated to Celine Dion lyrics and the made-up street sign for Banh Mi Alley will be rewarded with a superb bánh mì đặc biệt.
With three locations in Venice, West LA, and Downtown, this daytime spot takes its Vietnamese sandwiches seriously. Though the bread is made by “a local industrial bakery,” according to one staffer, its freshness and pleasingly crackly top are notable.
The bánh mì đặc biệt comes with a trifecta of thinly sliced cold cuts: ham, chả lụa, and head cheese that softens just so tucked inside the warm baguette. The pate, neither smooth nor coarse, dazzles with its unabashedly porky savoriness. Jalapenos, cilantro, and a generous tangle of zesty-sweet pickles complete the package. 10433 National Boulevard #1A, Los Angeles, CA, 90034.