Ah . . . banh mi. Could you possibly be the most perfect sandwich ever invented?
Your herbs and pickled vegetables keep you fresh and light, but your soft, crunchy roll has the carb load I need for ultimate happiness. Banh mi originated as a street food in Vietnam but with large-scale migration to the U.S. over the last few decades, it has become a staple food in Global North. Want to try for yourself? Here’s our guide to the Vietnamese sandwiches found in Sonoma County, just in time for a late spring picnic. Don’t see your favorite?
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The Golden Bun
Those who live and work in downtown Santa Rosa rejoiced when The Golden Bun took over the site of a former Subway sandwich shop in 2017. Eighteen years ago, owner Mongtrang “Crystal” Nguyen moved to Sonoma County from San Francisco in search of a larger home for a better price. Lucky for us, she brought her culinary knowledge with her. If you are searching for an authentic banh mi, this bare-bones shop should be at the top of the list. The signature sandwich, The Golden Bun, is loaded with pork sausage, roasted pork, and pâté, plus all the good greens and pickled veggies on top. It’s the most expensive sandwich on the menu at $5.50. Nguyen sources the light, crunchy baguette from a bakery in Oakland. The vegetarian choice is delicious with tofu doused in a sweet and savory sauce. At $4.50, it’s hard to beat the price for a gut-satisfying lunch sandwich—though be aware prices might go up at some point as Nguyen admits it’s a challenge to pay rent on expensive downtown real estate when none of the sandwiches are priced above $6.
490 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 707. 890. 5678.
Monday through Friday, 10am to 6pm (Summer, 7pm), Saturday and Sunday, 11am to 5pm.
Right next to Puff Puff Pass Smoke Shop and a few doors down from Avenue Coin Laundry sits one of the best sandwich shops in town. Like many hidden gems, you have to slow down on the fast ride down the avenue to spot it. Once you take the time to enter through the beaded curtain, it will feel like stumbling upon a tiny museum. The walls are covered in landscape paintings and the counter area is practically hidden by a motley crew of statues: Brass lions, Green Tara, laughing Buddha, soldiers on horses, eagles, and birds. Are they for sale? “Some, not all,” the shopkeeper replies.
Regarding the menu, well, most every sandwich is $3.95 and whatever you pick, it’s probably going to be good. The bread is made in the shop, and it’s a traditional, lighter Vietnamese-style baguette. The pickles and carrots remain crunchy, even when the sandwich isn’t immediately consumed. If you want paté, get the #1 Ham and Headcheese or the #4 Combination Ham. A tofu version is available for the same price. Every table in the shop is decorated with just one bottle of Sriracha sauce—because what else do you need? When I brought a couple of sandwiches home, my husband, who is first-generation Chinese-American said, “This is what I remember my mom would bring home from the Asian market when I was a kid. They were in a basket with a rubber band and they were $1.50 each, and she would bring home five or six of them.” So go ahead, bring home five (or six).
3020 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.890.0855.
Monday through Saturday, 8am to 4pm and Sunday, 9am to 2pm. Closed Wednesday.
Simply Vietnam Express
This is the cheeriest and most bustling of the Vietnamese restaurants in town, with a constant line at lunchtime. But you won’t have to wait long for your order as the staff is used to the crowd and has the service down to a science. All of the banh mi are served on a toasted French baguette and come with pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro, cucumber, jalapeños, and a creamy butter spread. I tried the roasted pork ($7.50) and the tofu ($7.50) both of which were serviceable and filling. Unlike the classic Vietnamese baguette, the bread at Simply Vietnam is a chewier, thicker dough with less crispy crust. You won’t find pâté on the sandwiches here, but you will find plenty of people watching, with construction workers on their lunch breaks slurping down noodles, millennials chatting it up over hot plates of rice and meat, and kids in school uniforms dropping by with their parents for an after-school bubble tea. Lots of seating, both bar-style and table. Wash down the sandwich with a Vietnamese coffee and leave happy, satisfied, and glad to be alive.
3381 Cleveland Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.544.4585.
Monday through Saturday, 11am to 3pm and 4:30pm to 8:30pm.
Corner Park Cafe & Yo Panda
When Kanha Kien bought the former Donut Cafe from longtime owner Frank Whigham, she kept some of the original items (donuts, coffee, etc.) and added an entirely new menu based in Cambodian and Vietnamese cuisine.
In her early 30s, Kien already owns Yo Panda, a deli that also serves banh mi and other lunch items off Corporate Center Parkway. Now she’s expanding to the north eastern part of town with a huge menu that includes pho, boba tea, snow shave ice, and, of course, sandwiches.
The bread for the banh mi is made in-house. In the style of a French roll, it’s toasted, soft, chewy and crunchy at the same time. The sandwiches arrive with a nice proportion of herbs, shredded carrots, and daikon. The pork is grilled and spiced to perfection, and the tofu also carries a nice flavor. Both the spices and the pork are prepared by Kien’s mother, who also helps in the shop along with her sisters. The Crispy Tofu, the only vegetarian selection on the menu, is $7. The BBQ Lemongrass Pork is $7.95, pricier than some of the other spots, but you get what you pay for in fresh ingredients. Other choices include BBQ Five Spice Chicken ($7.25), a Cold Cut Deli Combo ($7.50), and a Spicy Pork Sauce ($7.95). And hey, you’re in a donut shop, so for dessert how about a pink frosted donut topped with Fruity Pebbles ($1.25)? It’s nice to see Kien carrying on Whigham’s donut recipes while bringing in new life with the Vietnamese selections.
Corner Park Café: 4275 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa. 707.539.2416. Monday through Sunday, 6am to 8pm.
Yo Panda: 925 Corporate Center Pkwy, Santa Rosa. 707.522.1388. Monday through Sunday, 6am to 4pm.
Tan’s Donuts and Cambodian Food
Owned by a local Cambodian family, Tan’s Donuts on Guerneville Road has been serving noodles, spring rolls, banh mi, and much more for the last three years at their sit-down restaurant. The BBQ pork ($6.50) is a true hoagie-style sandwich, with thick bread made on the same machines as the donuts by the wife of owner Van Chey. It arrives at the table almost over-stuffed with a balanced mix of chunky, pickled carrots and radish, and round circles of jalapeños, plus the surprise combination of mayonnaise and mustard. Pair the sandwich with a plate of noodles covered in slices of gai lan (Chinese broccoli), and enjoy the family vibe of the place. On your way out, pick up a maple bar ($1.50) or an apple fritter to really feel complete.
22550 Guerneville Road, Suite E., Santa Rosa. 707.528.1567. Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 8pm and Sunday, 10am to 4pm.
Other spots with banh mi on the menu:
East Wind Bakery
3851 Sebastopol Rd #109, Santa Rosa. eastwindbakery.com
Jam’s Joy Bungalow
Various locations. jamsjoybungalow.com
1202 W. Steele Lane, Santa Rosa. kettlesbistro.com
57 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa. zoftigeatery.com