As basic lunch staples go, perhaps there is no single concept that could be considered the furthest thing from “gourmet” as the humble sandwich — and yet chef Eric Park, one of the minds behind Black Hogg in Silverlake, Calif. as well as its sandwich shop lunch concept, Sopressata, seems intent on bringing yet another sandwich shop to Downtown Los Angeles. The new sandwich spot, aptly named “Hero Shop,” actually serves one very particular style of sandwich: the Vietnamese banh mi.
The Vietnamese food staple is a fusion of colonial French influences and Southeast Asian flavors. A Vietnamese style baguette is sliced lengthways, smeared on one side with pate and stuffed with pork, beef or chicken, cilantro, pickled carrots, daikon and peppers.
Park has made headlines for his bold and complex flavor combinations while at the helm of Black Hogg, an endeavor that has proved rather successful. So the chef, along with his partner Jonathan Kim, weren’t exactly up all night thinking of ways to branch out their brand in Los Angeles — the idea of a banh mi shop came to them naturally, and has actually been in the works for quite some time.
“Banh mi was something I had on the backburner, and we were actually going to bring Sopressata [to Downtown L.A.],” Park said. “We were just talking, and then that eventually became [us] saying we should do something different and open a banh mi concept.”
The shift from Sopressata, which puts out more traditional American-styled sandwiches like turkey and avocado and Italian cold cut sandwiches, to banh mi, was an obvious one for Jonathan Kim.
“A big, chef-driven banh mi shop doesn’t really exist in Downtown,” Kim said. “It’s something I think people will really enjoy, and people who have never tried banh mi will get a chance to try it for the first time.”
Kim’s words ring true, at least in part. Most traditional Vietnamese style banh mi can be found about 30 miles south of Los Angeles in Westminster, Calif. The Orange County suburb is also home to Little Saigon, the single largest Vietnamese community by population outside of Vietnam. It’s there that the banh mi has achieved significant popularity as a cheaper, faster and altogether more palatable alternative to U.S. sub shops like Subway.
The most well known purveyor of banh mi in and around Westminster is Lee’s Sandwiches, a banh mi shop that unfortunately puts the emphasis on its lower prices and not the quality of the sandwiches themselves.
“I’ve eaten Lee’s [Sandwiches] and Banh Mi Che Cali [in Westminster, Calif.]. You always wish you had more — there’s not enough meat,” Park said. “They’re always known to be super cheap so that’s what you get, a sparsely portioned sandwich.”
The banh mi at Hero Shop, however, is anything but sparse. A barbecue pork banh mi comes stuffed with tender, rich and fatty spiced pork, balanced out with daikon relish, diced pickled carrot, whole-leaf cilantro, chili mayo and fish sauce vinaigrette.
One bite reveals a unique experience that distinguishes it from the typical, needle-thin and topping-sparse baguettes from Lee’s. A crunchy, substantive baguette strikes the perfect balance of textures, giving way to the sandwich’s hearty largesse of savory ingredients. The barbecue pork, spiced with notes of ginger and gochujang (red pepper paste), is reminiscent of the Korean dish dwaeji-bulgogi.
The chili mayo and the sliced peppers neatly accentuate the spicy notes, giving the sandwich a manageable kick in the finish that cuts through the pâté and savory pork. Kim is right. There is nothing quite like this banh mi in Los Angeles — or anywhere else, for that matter.
In following this philosophy of thoughtfully employed and well-balanced ingredients is the fatty brisket banh mi, which is in part Park’s take on another Vietnamese food staple, pho, in sandwich form.
“If you go to some good pho places, they’ll have a fatty brisket pho that’s not available everywhere,” Park said. “You get a lot of flavor from the fat, and I wanted to transfer that flavor to a sandwich. We’re marinating it in a lot of Vietnamese spices, including a Vietnamese five spice that we put on the brisket.”
Similar to the barbecued pork, the brisket is melt-in-your-mouth tender. The crunchiness of the bread is vital here for textural balance. There are no pickled vegetables here to detract from the mellow, fatty beef brisket. Instead, fragrant notes of coriander and a familiar heat from the chili mayo and jalapeno reinforce the beef.
Aside from the sandwiches, Hero Shop plans on offering rice bowls and salads based on ingredients used for the banh mi. Which brings up another point: Hero Shop is still in soft open, with its grand opening planned in the very near future. In the meantime, though, Hero Shop seems well on its way to making its mark in a very busy Downtown L.A. lunch scene.
Hero Shop is located at 130 E 6th Street in Downtown Los Angeles. The Shop is open from 10:30 a.m. through 4:30 p.m. from Tuesday through Saturday.