Huong Lan Sandwich – San Jose, California

Huong Lan Sandwich
1655 Tully Road
San Jose, California

huong lan sandwiches

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 interior

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.

huong lan banh mi

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.

huong lan meat

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.

Saigon: BBQ Ostrich, Boats, Bun Bo Hue

We’ve made it to Saigon. I call it Saigon because it is easier to type than Ho Chi Minh City. The Khmer call it Prey Nokor since it was Cambodian until the 1700s, but I won’t get into it.

We took the Sapaco Tourist Bus, which leaves from Sihanouk Boulevard near Olympic Market, and it was relatively painless – clean enough bus, something approximating leg-room, and a fairly painless border crossing experience. $12 each. I would use them again. They also showed us Terminator 3. A Vietnamese woman with a high-pitched voice did all of the voices, including Arnie.

We’re staying at the Ngoc Minh Hotel, which is just as nice as advertised on TripAdvisor. It’s clean, small, quiet, and tidy, and in a very convenient location. I can’t think of any witty complaints.

For lunch, we stumbled down the street and upon Mitau, a restaurant that specializes in food from Hue, the historic central Vietnamese city we’re going to end our trip in. I like Bun Bo Hue – we get this stuff back in Sacramento, which might as well be a Vietnamese annex in some spots – and this was tasty stuff. I especially appreciated the fish cake. We were served free jasmine tea and fantastic candied ginger chips for dessert. The lady who owns the place has a championship golfer son and the place is decorated in golf-Christmas-tea-shop kitsch which I found extremely charming.

It was nap-time at the model boat store. I love model boats and Saigon seems to have a curiously large number of speciality model boat stores. I really would like one but they probably wouldn’t fit well in my crap backpack.

SHARK BOAT IS POSSIBLY THE MOST AWESOME BOAT IN THE UNIVERSE

We walked along the Saigon River and found this large cargo boat being retrofitted. There were also some cannon and some little boys capturing goldfish out of the river – not sure how cute little dime-store goldfish survive in this river but they do. It was a pleasant spot to sit. The hawkers here actually just shrug and walk off when you shake your head “no” which is a pleasant departure from Cambodia.

We walked by a new hotel celebrating opening day. The bell-boys were burning some fake money for good luck. They do this in Phnom Penh but have never had a chance to take some photos. So I did. They were nice about it.

Lucky (fake) money into the fire. No, it’s not real.

We went to the Luong Son Quan BBQ restaurant, an old stalwart of a local grilled-meat joint. Open-air, lots of people drinking 75 cent Tiger beer out of mugs with straws, all kinds of bizarre things on the menu. The food was cheap and excellent. They don’t mark up Diet Coke here like they do in Cambodia. Is that some sort of economic indicator?

People eating tasty animals. Those people being Phill and I.

The menu at Luong Son is nothing if not creative – and extensive. We passed on the Steamed Penis and Ball of Goat with Chinese Medicinals. Maybe we made a dire mistake for our love life but I’m sort of doubting it. We did get ostrich, which was fabulous. Like the love child of chicken and beef.

Inside Bo Tung Xe. Thanks for making my photo more amusing without me noticing, random guy.

Saigon by night. The traffic is bad but not as bad as Phnom Penh. People drive mostly scooters here instead of exceptionally old bikes. People also sort of follow traffic regulations in Saigon, which they don’t in Phnom Penh. As Phill noted, security guards here are usually grown men instead of 16 year olds playing Angry Birds on their cellphones which may be another economic indicator.

It’s sort of impossible not to compare and contrast when you’re from a country that is constantly engaged in a sort of one-upmanship battle with the other (and very different levels of development). That’s one of the reasons I came to Vietnam.

Well, that and the food. The food is awesome.