Just a few blocks west of Ramona Elementary School in Alhambra, California, and a jump over its fence, lies Bánh Mì My-Tho, a no-frills sandwich shop and, back in the day, the daily destination for Tin Vuong, the San Gabriel Valley born and raised chef.
"The one with the cold cuts and grilled pork. It's my favorite one," Vuong says of his go-to order as a schoolkid. "Lots of flavor, easy to eat, filling, affordable, and you can eat half and save it for later in your backpack."
It was his morning haunt, his lunchtime escape and, now as the enterprising chef behind six restaurants and two more in the works in Southern California, his weekly coffee stop on his way to his latest restaurant, a Downtown L.A. offshoot of his Manhattan Beach hit, Little Sister.
Banh mi is a thing of comfort and familiarity, and in Vuong's hands, a tumult in studied experimentation and a bit of fun, too. Which is why he's throwing a banh mi party with us, complete with a fried fish version slicked with an addictive tomato jam (see the recipe); not-so-basic grilled chicken (see the recipe); a salad, albeit one with crunchy green papaya and beef jerky (see the recipe); and a take on the OG cold cuts (see the recipe).
"I eat it, I grew up with it and I'm trying to make it as legit as possible without watering it down too much," Vuong explains. "I'm just trying to make good, honest food in any which genre."
A little bit of everything flows into the food at Little Sister, dubbed so because the smaller space came after his first restaurant, the huge 300-seater Abigaile in Hermosa Beach. There's mapo tofu, cold and sprinkled with crisp leeks; Myanmar-style curry with okra and fried eggs; and bo kho, stippled with tender marrow and rib meat and served with a baguette and butter. "In his own quiet way, Vuong wants to blow your mind," Jonathan Gold, the revered critic at the L.A. Times writes of the "Vietnamese anti-fusion with a punk rock heart."
Vuong's likely never read those words. "It's a lot of noise, and I'm, like, super introverted, you know, so I keep to myself." He doesn't spin grand stories, telling us how he got into cooking after making food for himself and his roommates as an econ undergrad at UCLA. "When it's free, and if you put enough hot sauce on that shit, everything is good," he says matter-of-factly. These days, Vuong's not playing down anything, shy or self-deprecating, rather he just doesn't think people will always like what he has to say. So he lets his food do the talking.
The salad he makes us is pulled straight from holes-in-the-wall in Vietnam, still as sprightly and feisty with all the spice and crunch. "It's the proverbial chicken sandwich, for lack of a better word," Vuong says of the simple, satisfying chicken banh mi, and the fried fish is the wonderful experiment melding Cantonese flavors with Vietnamese texture for one family meal. Surprisingly, the most popular banh mi among customers is his old favorite, dubbed OG SGV.
"I'm just trying to do my job. I'm not trying to be in the limelight," Vuong says. "Inspiration? Just cook whatever I think is good."
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