Jenny Mai Fast Food
424 W. College Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90112
Info on Yelp
[Note: this post has been edited to update the restaurant's name following a change of ownership.]
Between our matinee subscription series at Disney Hall, Sa's garment district shopping needs, and the seeming endless cycle of jury duty, we find ourselves downtown at lunchtime a lot. Lucky for us, this means FOOD. Of course, within ten minutes of the Civic Center there are loads of options, from the delights of Little Tokyo to the dim sum and seafood palaces of Chinatown. But you don't always have time for a full sit-down meal at lunchtime. One of our go-to tos for a quick grab and go is a handful basketful of taquitos from Olvera Street, which I discuss here. But lately we've been availing ourselves of the splendid and little known (outside the foodie community) Vietnamese sandwich they call bânh mi. Bânh mi literally means "flour roll" in Vietnamese: it's a baguette. You wonder why a baguette is an authentic Vietnamese culinary item, but as soon as you ask out loud, you'll remember that the French were colonizing Vietnam as early as 1850, and some elements of French cooking entered their cuisine.
So, a bânh mi is simply a sandwich made with Vietnamese ingredients on a light baguette. The ingredients are as variable as any sandwich, but you'll find a few common items: a choice of protein (maybe bbq pork, pork skin, chicken, ham, tofu, or more exotic stuff like head cheese); usually mayonnaise, sometimes with garlic; a slaw made of pickled daikon, shredded carrots and fish sauce; and cilantro, jalapeños, or cucumbers. Many of the "special" bânh mi combination sandwiches -- think Italian sub -- also come with a light smear of pate at the base of it all.
Yes, it's as delicious as it sounds, and surprisingly light. The bread is airy thanks to a high rice flour-to-wheat flour ratio, but still pleasantly chewy. My favorite bânh mi, the bbq pork with pate combo, is rich and savory at its heart, but lightened and brightened by the sweetness of the carrots, the tanginess of the pickled daikon, and the zip added by the cilantro. The sandwiches are nearly footlong, but it's entirely possible to eat the whole thing without feeling overfed. You'll see bânh mi offered at many Vietnamese and Vietnamese owned Chinese restaurants and delis in Chinatown; there are no doubt serviceable ones scattered throughout L.A. I find myself on La Cienega Blvd. quite often and have sampled a couple at Absolutely Phobolous. But our favorite sandwiches are at Jenny Mai's Fast Food (until recently Rainbow Bakery; ownership has changed but staff, menu, and prices remain the same) located in an alley-like strip mall that, unusually for Chinatown, actually offers free parking with validation.
Order your sandwich at the brightly neon-lit counter from the numerous pictures on the wall, and the freshly made bread is toasted for you, the sandwich assembled to order. Eat at one of the small tables or, as we usually do, take it over to the lovely garden outside Disney Concert Hall for a picnic.
The other excellent news is that bânh mi are generally inexpensive: Jenny Mai''s are a measly $2.95.
The lasting influence of French colonization and American war in Vietnam is one for historians to debate. But at least all of that misery and death had one pleasant result: it led directly to the multicultural culinary phenomenon of expatriates bringing tasty, tasty bânh mi to Southern California.