Fifteen years sipping coffee at Banh Mi My Tho
Several times a week for the last 15 years, I've gotten my morning fix of Vietnamese dark roasted coffee with sweetened condensed milk — ca phe sua nong -- at Banh Mi My Tho. While I sip my coffee, I like to watch as workers hustle deliveries of fresh French bread rolls, trays of fresh snacks and large bags of rice and customers order their sandwiches and street snacks in Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese.
From their location in a small strip mall on Valley Boulevard just west of Garfield Boulevard, Banh Mi My Tho has been serving Alhambra for over 18 years. The Dai family first opened across the street from the long gone Sir George’s Restaurant and Bob’s Big Boy (now Noodle World) down the street. Their name comes from the combination of Banh Mi, Vietnamese for sandwich, and My Tho, their hometown in Vietnam.
The road from My Tho to Alhambra was arduous and long. After Saigon fell to Communist forces in 1975, the Dai Family fled South Vietnam on a 20-foot boat, landing in a refugee camp in Malaysia for a few months. Actual refuge came when a family in Illinois sponsored them. Daniel Dai, the youngest son, told me they learned a great deal about being financially responsible from their sponsor, which later helped them open their own businesses.
After a year in Illinois, they joined other family members in Brooklyn and opened a Chinese restaurant. They struggled to make their restaurant successful in a predominately Italian and African American neighborhood, so after eight years they headed west to Alhambra to be close to Mrs. Dai's family. Again, they opened a Chinese restaurant but faced competition. And then the elder Dai noticed there was only one Vietnamese sandwich shop serving Alhambra. That is when they opened their current business and found the right combination to make their mark on the culinary scene.
Like the Dais, about 10 percent of Alhambra residents are foreign-born Vietnamese, mostly with a Chinese background. But their customers come from all over the world — and even from the Westside of Los Angeles. In the years since they opened, Banh Mi have become very popular in the San Gabriel Valley and have attracted a loyal following of people who love the combination of the crusty French bread filled with delicious combinations of Vietnamese fillings of marinated meats and vegetables. With the appearance of the large chain franchises like Lee's Sandwiches, Mr. Baguettes and Banh Mi Che Cali it is a testimony to the quality of the small “hole in the wall” businesses like Banh Mi My Tho that they continue to flourish and attract a loyal fan base of epicureans who appreciate the differences between a mass produced product and the unique taste of the family run eateries. Los Angeles Magazine even gave their grilled pork sandwich (Banh Mi Thit Nuong) the Best Sandwich award in 2010, and LA Weekly gave it the tongue-in-cheek 2011 award of Best Sandwich Shop that Looks Like a Gas Station.
I asked Daniel Dai to explain in more detail what is different about their food. “Vietnamese food is a blend of many cultures. The French were there and the Chinese were there also," he said. "We marinate our meat with both lemon grass and garlic, unlike other places who use ground meat we slice our meat thin on a meat slicer that goes all day long. This is the same menu from when we first opened, but we have taken the ingredients from the sandwiches and created other dishes. Our bread comes from a French bakery every morning and is heartier and thicker than the standard baguette. The franchises get their bread half-baked and finish it up on location. It is a matter of balance: a lot of places use a lot of bread and little meat. We make a sandwich that has a lot of meat. Also we have consistency and it’s always my mom, dad or me that are watching over the process and other places have turnover of the employees so the food changes.”
Daniel is planning on continuing the business. “This is my legacy and I want to pass it on when I have children. I enjoy seeing all of the people coming here but it is hard work: the prices are low and the costs are high. I might change it up a bit and use more technology." Mom gives him the look when she hears this but Daniel quickly adds, “ I will keep the formula the same.”
Banh Mi My Tho
304 West Valley Blvd.
Alhambra, Ca 91801
Hours: Tue-Sun 7am-7pm