I am very fortunate. I live near Boston's largest Vietnamese community. (It's known as Little Saigon because the majority of the Vietnamese there moved to the area as the Vietnam War ended in the mid-1970s.) What that means is that I have easy access to delicious Vietnamese food! For years I've had my go-to places where I happily go to slurp on large, steaming, healthy bowls of pho and canh chua ca. The former is a combination of noodles and various cuts of beef, while the latter is a sweet and sour fish soup. Both are glorious.
Then I discovered banh mi, which are essentially Vietnamese heroes. They're made on crisp-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside French baguettes (remember that Vietnam was under French rule for the first half of the 20th century, until the United States intervened) and are filled with a combination of meats. Commonly pork, pate, head cheese, etc. are fillings, along with pickled carrots, radish, cucumber and hot peppers. All are put inside the cut baguette, which is spread with a seasoned butter mixture.
I've visited several shops along Dorchester Avenue over the past several months. One is so filthy that I refused to buy anything there. It probably needs to be raided by the Public Health Department. A second one that is located closer to Columbia Road is just ok. The beef used was tough and way too salty. I would not go there again.
There is one banh mi shop that has emerged as head and shoulders above the rest. It's called LA Baguette and Restaurant, located in the heart of Little Saigon, at 1229 Dorchester Avenue ((617) 436-5464).
The place is clean and unassuming. But the food is a joy to eat! While the restaurant name highlights banh mi as its specialty, there are other food items on the menu: fried rice, crab mixture on baguette, fried fish, stewed chicken, chicken lo mein with vegetables, etc. These are served cafeteria style and are changed regularly.
But let's be clear. Banh mi is the star here, as it should be. First of all, the baguettes are made fresh. I would put them against the best French baguettes that I've eaten in Paris. Yes, I'm serious; they are that good. When I go to the restaurant, I often see people buying bags of baguettes.
As much as I love bread, I'm more interested in the stuff on the inside. LA Baguette features a fairly extensive menu of banh mi choices. There are vegetarian, tuna, beef and variations on the traditional pork fillings. The astounding thing is that the highest price point for a banh mi is a whopping $3.50. And the women who prepare the sandwiches do not skimp on either the protein or the vegetables.
I went today to buy one and chose the King Do Special, which features different cuts of pork and ham. I always get my sandwich with hot peppers, as I like a kick to my food. The sandwich is fairly generous in size and bursts with contrasting sweet, sour and salty flavor.
I especially enjoy the pickled vegetables, which provide a nice degree of contrasting texture and crunchiness to the softness of the meats.
If you're in Dorchester, I highly recommend LA Baguette and Bakery.