Carla Meyer

Dining review: Huong Lan Sandwiches a great intro to Little Saigon

Let's embark on a cultural and culinary road trip, seeking out a meal – in this case, a sandwich for less than $5 that will appeal to all kinds of folks, from food-lovers to gluttons, from tightwads to newly broke (after that panic in the markets).

From midtown, it's about 15 miles round trip to Huong Lan Sandwiches on Stockton Boulevard in a neighborhood so bustling with consumers and so replete with food it is thrilling to see and daunting to comprehend.

You could spend the next year of your life trying to visit all of the restaurants along a stretch of road that goes for 1 1/2 miles.

As we motor down Stockton Boulevard, we will pass a coffee shop, the UC Davis Medical Center, a sandwich place, a hamburger joint, a quirky and satisfying Thai fusion joint called Boon Boon, then the beloved old-time pizza parlor, Luigi's.

Right about then, we hit a rough patch – used tire shops, a mechanic or two, a place to cash checks, but hardly any food. The vibe and the energy? Depleted and confused. It is jarring, too, mostly because of what comes next – this wondrous stretch of road now known as Little Saigon.

It's been reinvented and overhauled into the most eclectic, exotic and thriving retail district in the Sacramento region in the three decades since Vietnamese immigrants settled in the Sacramento area. In 2010, the City Council officially designated the area as "Little Saigon."

For a user-friendly and tasty introduction to this part of town, ground zero is the shopping complex anchored by SF Supermarket, which caters to an Asian American clientele. If you've ever tackled an Asian recipe at home and wondered where you'd find all the ingredients, this is your store. If you simply want to be impressed, confused and mesmerized even if you don't need groceries, this, too, is your store.

Within that shopping center is a modest-looking Vietnamese cafe and bakery called Huong Lan. This can be our jumping-off point for those new to trying things they've never seen or heard of, biting into something without knowing precisely what it is.

It was that way with me the first time I sipped a bright green drink call "avocado pearl." It was a cold, thick, refreshing beverage – complete with an entertainment component. Every time I took a sip, some of those dark little pearls would travel up through the thick straw. The dime-sized balls of tapioca tasted like, and had the consistency of, miniature marshmallows.

In a way, this is the story of the Vietnamese style of presenting food with contrasts in taste, texture and temperature. Vietnamese iced coffee is that way, too – intensely strong coffee coupled with thick, slightly sweet condensed milk.

Huong Lan is an appropriate introduction to Little Saigon because the centerpiece of its menu – the banh mi – is, in fact, a cultural hybrid. It is a sandwich on a French roll or baguette that highlights Vietnam's French influence. Within the sandwich, you can put nearly any kind of meat – boiled pork, barbecued pork, shredded chicken, roast beef, ham, even tripe. The flavor notes that go with the meat and bread are definitively Asian: slices of jalapeños, healthy clumps of cilantro, long strips of daikon radish and carrots that have been pickled and shredded.

In the best of these sandwiches, like the consistently good ones at Huong Lan, you get the familiar crunch and crackle of the crusty bread, then the mellow tenderness of the crumb (or interior of the bread), and as you sink your teeth in, the sharp, clean crunch of the vegetables coupled with the tenderness of the meat.

The flavor combination is at once simple and complex. The peppers and cilantro bring their own kind of heat that enhances the mild taste of the meat. The bread soothes. In fact, while we waited for our many sandwiches to be made, I bought a full-sized French baguette for $1 and I could feel through the paper bag that it had come out of the oven only minutes earlier.

I have tried other banh mi joints in the area and enjoyed their food, too, though Huong Lan is still the front-runner at this price point.

Styles can vary slightly. For instance, at nearby Long's Sandwiches, the crust is soft rather than crisp – too soft for some purists. Huong Lan's sandwiches, I must point out, are not the best banh mi in town. For that, you must go to Magpie Café in midtown for its $10.50 banh mi, complete with thick slabs of Niman ranch beef and amazing daikon and pickled carrots.

But magnificent Magpie is an entirely different place, and its banh mi – meaty, fiery, soothing and crunchy – may be the finest sandwich of any kind in the city. The fact that it is even on the menu shows the depth of influence coming from Stockton Boulevard and Little Saigon.

The Huong Lan experience is an adventure as well as a bargain. To get it, you line up, you order, you wait, you browse. You can see into the back kitchen, where a cook might be tending to the grill as the flames dance and soar around the meat, which will soon find its way onto a sandwich, possibly yours. The pots are blackened, as is the steel backsplash.

When it is busy, Huong Lan can be confusing. Employees may or may not speak much English. But pictures and numbers are on the menu on the wall, and you will get what you want. And if not, you will want what you get.

You will also need cash. Many of the businesses in the area don't like to accept credit cards.

One of the area's biggest advocates of Little Saigon is Paul Somerhausen, the head of Sacramento Epicureans, a club for food lovers looking to expand their dining repertoire. Affable and enthusiastic whenever the subject turns to food, Somerhausen is as likely to seek out a meal at a tiny cafe serving pho or banh mi as he is to dine at a place like The Kitchen, where the prix fixe dinner is $125 per person.

"What is so unique about that area is that it feels like you're in southeast Asia," he told me. "You have this plethora of colors and food options. If you have some guidance with where to eat, it can feel like you've traveled to Vietnam."

Somerhausen also recommends stopping in at SF Supermarket, even if it's just to browse and explore.

"You will see things that you won't see anywhere else. It's a fascinating experience," he added.

So is Huong Lan. If the sandwiches whet your appetite for more, you can find plenty of other goodies there, including a variety of baked items and several other savory Vietnamese dishes. For takeout recently, I bought two rolls made with grilled pork and shrimp (in Vietnamese, it's called "nem nuong cuon") wrapped in rice paper with lettuce, mint and bean sprouts. I dipped the rolls in hoisin sauce and loved them. Yes, I am eating the second one as I complete this sentence, sticky fingers and all.

Huong Lan Sandwiches

6930 65th St., Sacramento

(916) 429-9999

Hours: 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily.

Full bar? No alcohol.

Takeout? Yes.

Vegetarian friendly? Somewhat.

Overall 3 stars (good)

Rating a restaurant like this is a challenge, for it's a place that means so much to the Little Saigon area and to people who covet the inexpensive banh mi sandwich. Yes, it is a destination, an experience and, now, a neighborhood institution. It is fun and inspiring, and it can be a revelation. Expect to be satisfied by the food, but not necessarily thrilled.

Food 3 stars (good)

We focused on the banh mi sandwiches, all of which cost less than $4, and they are all quite good. But at this price point, don't look too hard for words like "sustainable" or "Niman Ranch." These sandwiches are fun, slightly exotic and, best of all, a starting point for further exploration of the culinary adventure that is Little Saigon. After you've gone through the sandwich choices, try some of the spring rolls.

Service 2 stars (fair)

You order at the counter. You get a smile, a receipt and, in a matter of minutes, your food. Simple as that.

Ambience 3 stars (good)

Nothing fancy here, but it's just a cool place when it's busy. Order at the counter, look around and soak it all up.

Value 3 1/2 stars

So many options for under $5. No one ever went broke filling up at Huong Lan.

Noteworthy: Remember to bring cash. No credit cards accepted. Before or after your meal, be sure to browse through the nearby SF Supermarket. Many foodies also like to get a foot massage across the street at Happy Day Spa.