Food is a by-product of a culture’s history. Oftentimes, cuisines are shaped by the stories of a people. One way the Vietnamese have shared their culture and story with us is through the banh mi sandwich. Banh mi sandwiches have been endearingly deemed “a migration story wrapped in a fluffy bread roll.”
In the mid- to late 1800s to the 1950s, the French colonized parts of Vietnam, bringing with them not only Western ideals with regard to socialization and religion, but also about food. The French exposed the Vietnamese to baguettes and pâté (a buttery meat paste usually made of liver), which the Vietnamese people ultimately made their own by adding ingredients like rice flour to make it fluffier, lighter and crustier than the French iteration. The Vietnamese took the French-style baguette and made it more exciting. Since then, that once Western-style baguette has been stuffed with savory, spicy and pickled goodness and become a Vietnamese staple. The sandwich has been historically sold as street food that is cheap, filling, loved and replicated all over the world.
In South Sacramento’s Little Saigon, this culture, history and food intersect. Little Saigon is a strip of Vietnamese-owned businesses along 65th and Stockton Boulevard where you can find a plethora of authentic Vietnamese fare, from the sit-down to the grab-and-go. Among the countless amazing food options, there’s one place that stands out: Huong Lan Sandwiches.
The Sacramento location is part of a quality Vietnamese food chain with several restaurants up and down California whose mission is to, “share with you our delightful, savory and distinctive home-style dishes that are reminiscent of our native country.”
Huong Lan has some of the best authentic Vietnamese sandwiches in our area. That light, airy roll that is so ingrained in Vietnam’s past is stuffed with a heavenly combination of savory proteins, tangy pickled veggies, fresh herbs and thinly julienned jalapenos for spice to give us one magical banh mi. At Huong Lan, they have 16 variations of the sandwich, including vegan and vegetarian options all for under $5.
Huong Lan is situated in a strip-mall like cluster that’s nestled between an epic Asian supermarket and a dentist’s office. The no-frills restaurant gives you the feeling that you are there to get sustained and eat well, not to take a bunch of Instagram pictures of your dining experience.
Upon entering, you have to choose if you want to go to the left line or the right. I opted for left, then right. There are two separate areas in which you can order food. The line to the right of the entrance is where you purchase grab-and-go food and order sandwiches mainly to take away. Trays of food and snacks are methodically placed so that a new dish meets your eye with every step forward in line you take. If you wish to eat a bowl of pho, vermicelli or a rice plate to dine-in, move yourself to the left and find a seat. There is no real table service. Servers come to your table to take your order when they think you look ready, and then drop your food off for you to enjoy, and that’s usually the last you hear of them. It’s super casual and perfect.
My dining partner and I first hit up the line on the right. Before we even hit the register to order our sandwiches, we were carrying stacks of trays of food from the ready-to-go section. I picked up a tray of stir-fried vegetarian vermicelli noodles, com chien (fried rice), as well as shrimp and grilled pork gỏi cuổn (Vietnamese fresh spring rolls) for $3.50 each. They also had a hot-plate section with ready-to-eat chicken and rice dishes that seemed to run out every 10 minutes. Additionally, you can buy popular Vietnamese snacks and drinks from the ready-to-go section, as well as whole baguettes that people were buying non-stop by the armful. I’m saving these food ventures for a future trip. We took these trays home and it was plenty to share amongst a group of four. The crowd favorite was the vegetarian noodles.
When finally at the register, we opted for the more traditional grilled pork banh mi. It was tough considering there were well over a dozen options. This sandwich did not disappoint. The baguette was impossibly fresh and light. The inside was pillowy and soft, while the outside had a crisp crust that almost guarantees your sandwich won’t get soggy. The combination of its contents were masterfully layered and made to make a foodie’s dream come true: tangy daikon and shredded carrots, fresh cilantro, crisp cucumber, a smear of pâté and marinated grilled pork.
After we were rung up for our to-go order, we then sat ourselves to the left side of the restaurant and ordered two bowls of pho, a popular Vietnamese soup made with rice noodles, herbs and protein in a flavorful broth that was traditionally served as street food. Huong Lans’ pho was incredible. I appreciated that the noodles weren’t overdone; rather, they let their broth appropriately do all of the work. Next time, I may just order the banh mi with a side order of just the broth.
For dessert, don’t skip out on the avocado shake. This mildly sweet smoothie (or milkshake), has ripe avocados with condensed milk, blended with ice and topped with a dollop of fresh whipped cream. It is extremely filling, but worth the splurge. They also have a full boba milk tea, also known as “pearl” drinks.
Huong Lan in Little Saigon is a great place to not only taste, but experience authentic Vietnamese food. When entering this restaurant, you feel as if it is a privilege to be able to eat food that has been shared by a culture and fine-tuned over many phases in their history. This eating excursion was cheap, filling and extremely satisfying. Head there to get the real deal.
**This piece first appeared in print on pages 22 – 23 of issue #293 (June 5 – 19, 2019)**