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By Steven Li on 2007-03-02

March 02, 2007

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I’m starting to think that when my dad comes to visit me in LA, he doesn’t come for the purpose of making sure his favorite daughter is doing well. He comes for Vietnamese food. Each visit to LA, my dad arrives with exactly three suitcases. One holds all the stuff he needs and the other two are empty. Soon to be filled with all these wonderful Vietnamese goodies that are not as easy to come by in Hawaii.

We begin with a drive to Nem Nuong in Rosemead. Grandma already called in and placed an order for 300 pieces of nem at $.50 a piece. What is nem, you ask? Well I don’t know exactly, but it is made from pork, very finely ground and pickled, then served raw with garlic and chili peppers. (Don’t get this confused with nem nuong which is the Vietnamese take on grilled meatballs). Each piece of nem is tiny rectangle, wrapped in plastic then foil paper. It’s chewy, and tangy…yet very light and not “meaty” at all. One bit of nem and you can immediately recognize the presence of fish sauce and plenty of garlic. Eat it with rice for a meal, or do what my cousin likes to do, take a piece out of the fridge and pop it in his mouth like candy. Savory candy, that is.

We went to go pick up our nem on a Wednesday, the day the restaurant is usually closed for business. However, the lady on the phone said we could stop by between 12-5pm and someone would be at the restaurant with our order. And this was when I found out what Nem Nuong does on its day off. Look! It’s the entire family working together at the tables, prepping ingredients and dishes for the week to come. They kept it dark (save electricity, maybe?) so I felt as if I stumbled across a secret club meeting. The members of the Nem Nuong Clan. I snapped a picture, then immediately felt embarrassed when everyone looked up, hehe. There must have been at least 15 people in the room and generations of families. Grandparents, grandchildren, husbands and wives….I just wanted to stand there and watch them make work, it was so interesting.

But alas, we could only pick up our nem, all 300 of them, before we were politely shooed out the door. The divided the nem between 7 packages (doesn’t quite divide out equally…) and gave us two freebies in each bag. Exciting! We were instructed to leave them out at room temperature for exactly three days before we could refrigerate and eat them cold. I have no idea what we will do with 300 pieces of nem, but I’m guessing that between our family and my grandparents, it’ll be gone before we know it.

Our next stop is at Mr. Baguette, home to what my family strongly believes is the best banh mi in all of LA. Back home in Hawaii, Bale has a clear monopoly on all things banh mi, and while they are very good, my dad has always harbored some qualms about their bread, “it’s not crispy enough, too much of the soft inside. I don’t hear any crackle when I bite into it.” Mr. Baguette is everything Bale is not. Both are good, but Mr. Baguette is just…well, better.

Thus you cannot call us crazy for taking home a dozen of their No.1 Combination sandwich at around $3 each.

The sandwiches are filled with a rich brush of creamy pate, slices of cha, headcheese and jambon. My favorite part of the filling is the pate, followed by the headcheese in all it’s gelatinous, blend of meats. Eh, that didn’t sound so appetizing, but it’s good, I promise! Think deli meats, only a hundred times finer. Now by the time the banh mi’s make it through airport inspection and the six hour plane ride, the bread will be soft. So we just stick it in the toaster then add the pickled veggies and peppers which they have kindly set aside in neat little plastic bags.

And because we purchased over $20, we were given a free ca phe su da! I loooove free things! I don’t normally buy ca phe su da’s from Mr. Baguette because they add vanilla to their drink, giving it this slightly off taste that does not belong in any respectable ca phe su da. But if it’s free…hehe, I’m not complaining!

Just across the street and down a few shops is Mr. Baguette’s biggest competitor: Lee’s Sandwiches. Lee’s is the big corporate version of Mr. Baguette, with shops all over California, Arizona and Texas. Hehe, now you can even get banh mi in Houston, how nearo is that?!

Even more cool is the fact that Lee’s has expanded their offerings in their new location on Valley Blvd. Here, they turn out ice cream in some of my favorite flavors like durian, jackfruit and taro.

They even installed a drive thru, a la McDonalds! DRIVE THRU BANH MI!What a revelation! I’ll have to give this a spin one day. See how fast they grow, this Lee, they definitely have an edge on the banh mi front in terms of convenience. However, Mr. Baguette doesn’t have to be too worried about business because their bread is far superior to Lee’s. Why did we come to Lee’s then, if Mr. Baguette is so much better?

Because, duh. It’s the CHA. Lee’s cha is awesome. My grandma is very picky about cha, and says that the ones in Hawaii are not steamed properly and the meat doesn’t taste as fresh. How she can pick that out, it still a wonder to me. But I believe everything (almost) my grandma says. She’s smart lady. At $3.50 a roll, we took home a dozen. Cha is most commonly used for banh mi’s (Mr. Baguette also turned out their own cha), but we also eat it with rice and steamed noodles.

Cha is made from fatty pork, potato starch, soy bean oil, fish sauce and many other good things including msg. It’s shaped into a log, wrapped with banana leaves then steamed. Cha is really bad for you. In fact, it’s almost as bad as Spam. But you have no idea, cause it tastes pretty healthy and is steamed and stuff. But yes, we are working on cutting down our cha consumption, especially dad. So only a dozen one-pound rolls this time.

So those two extra suitcases are packed nice and tight with good food. Dad made sure to pick up a few extra banh mi’s for the plane ride (since it seems that Aloha Air is the only one who bothers to serve any, or semi decent food today!) This is why everyone is so excited to pick up dad at the airport :)

Nem Nuong
9016 Mission Dr.
Rosemead, CA 91770
(626) 286-3370

Mr. Baguette
8702 E Valley Blvd.
Rosemead, California 91770
(626) 288-9166

Lee’s Sandwiches
8779 E Valley Blvd.
Rosemead, CA 91770
(626) 291-2688



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