Huong Lan Sandwich
1655 Tully Road
San Jose, California
It’s hard not to love banh mi, as any Californian with sense will inform you. I tend to subsist almost exclusively on these sandwiches when actually in Vietnam, enjoying both the comically low price point and the delightfully variable flavor — every small stand manned by elderly women, turning out ever-so-slightly different variants on the theme.
BBQ pork, chicken, pate, mysterious but tasty headcheeses, served with mayonnaise and pickled vegetables and even, at times, some of that curiously unperishable Laughing Cow cheese. Chili sauce and fried shallots and jalapeno, and (if lucky), a bit of hot left-over juice from sauteed pork. I’ll eat it all. Happily.
You can get good banh mi in America, of course. Anywhere with a large Vietnamese population will inevitably have a clutch of banh mi shops, which fill the ecological niche of Subway with both style and considerable thrift.
Huong Lan, in San Jose’s Little Saigon, is one of those sandwich-and-deli shops that I grew up with, and of which you know the type if you grew up in an area with a Vietnamese population. There’s a wide selection of prepared Vietnamese food, including Hue style rice cakes (banh cuon, et al), a profusion of spring roll varieties, and noodle bowls. There’s a hot fast food bar that offers rice plates on the go, with freshly fried spring rolls and catfish claypots covered with shrink wrap. There’s also a counter offering fresh BBQ meats. I was able to pick up some MSG saturated and delightfully nostalgic fried seaweed snacks, which made me happy. Curiously — I couldn’t find any fish sauce, although they did have shrimp paste.
The sandwich was only OK, I’m a bit sad to report. It was lacking some sort of special oomph. The bread wasn’t warmed up and was not quite shatter-y enough, and that, in my mind, makes all the difference. Further, the fillings were a bit inadequate in volume. I like a good banh mi to make an intolerable mess of any surface I’m eating it over. What was there, however, was good: BBQ pork was given a garnish of peanuts and fried shallots, which added some earthy, oily crunch. For $3, I can accept an unremarkable sandwich.
The real appeal at Huong Lan, then, is the counter serving up BBQ pork, duck, and chicken. Crispy slabs of pork with crackling still on. BBQ ducks, noisily chopped up on a big wooden block. I chose soy-sauce chicken, which cost me a little less than $5 for a pound, and was delightfully tender and flavorful. Why bother with those morose rotisserie chickens from Safeway? Here, they’ll even throw in the feet.