Giò Cha Duc Huong Sandwiches: Against the grain

Giò Cha Duc Huong Sandwiches

6825 Stockton Blvd.
Sacramento, CA

(916) 428-1188

With banh mi, it’s the bread that sets the tone. In fact, banh mi simply means bread in Vietnamese, but has come to serve as the shorthand for a Vietnamese sandwich. I think everyone who could possibly care knows by now that this marvelous sandwich is a result of the French colonization of Vietnam, so no need to explain it again. Just know that this is the best cultural mash-up since big trouble arrived in little China.

Giò Cha Duc Huong Sandwiches is shaking things up in the bread department, going against the grain for a Sac banh mi joint. First, its bread is more football shaped than submarine shaped; second, it makes garlic bread; third, it offers premade grab-and-go sandwiches right by the counter; and fourth, it also offers a small and a large version of each banh mi. These details may seem trivial, but with banh mi, such small variations make all the difference.

When you walk in the door, the smell of fresh bread slaps you in the face. This busy deli and bakery likely sells as many baguettes as it does sandwiches, as well as a variety of prepared take-away items, including the aforementioned bahn mis. To the uninitiated, the appearance of the deli items can seem confusing. The savories by the register all look like dessert (i.e., slices of pork cake that look like pumpkin bread, disc-like eggy chive cakes that look like enormous cookies), while the restaurant’s many desserts are made in shades of neon orange, green and yellow—hues not found in nature, save for a few flowers or tropical fish.

The service is brisk and non-Vietnamese diners are very likely to receive a stern “You tried before?” for any item involving headcheese or anything else possibly considered weird. I even got the third degree for ordering xui mai, a delicious, inoffensive pork-meatball dish.

Back to the headcheese that I had to go through a background check to order. It’s on the banh mi dac biet, has more than a passing acquaintance with red dye No. 5 and is shot through with cartilage squiggles. It’s not my favorite jellied organ slab. Luckily, the rest of the ingredients are ham, bolognalike pork cake, pork-liver pâté and butter.

The small menu is limited to eight sandwiches (mostly pork) and No. 9 and No. 10 on the menu are actually soups: chicken curry soup and a beef stew called bo kho banh mi, which comes with—you guessed it—bread. There’s a thick float of chili oil on top of the yellow, turmeric and lemon grass-laced curry soup, which, at first, is off-putting until I realize it can be dipped into the yeasty, crusty, fluffy bread. Hey, you can’t put much past me. But wait, can I also dip the bread in the spicy beef stew? That’s what it’s there for, silly!

It quickly becomes clear that the meats in the soups, while tender and flavorful enough, simply serve as a flavoring agent for the broth, which, in turn, is most important as a moistening liquid for the bread. I am helpless to stop dipping and crunching until all the bread is gone.

Many of the deli items beckon as well: a still-warm container of coconut pudding, sticky rice and black-eyed peas are at once ravishingly rich and earthy, with just a hint of salt. My husband said he couldn’t think of a dessert on Earth that he would be less excited about tasting, but hey, I’m the reviewer here.

With its substitution of butter for mayonnaise and the emphasis on pâté, Duc Huong shows a stronger than usual French influence. When I inquire of the cashier whether both are made in-house, she says “Of course” in a teenaged “duh!” sort of tone. Another cashier overhears and suggests I take a small banh mi with just pate and butter to go. I jump at the chance, even though I am more than stuffed, and later in the car, I experience a full-on foodie freakout with the first bite.

If I had been the driver, my passengers and I would all be dead. Duc Huong: so good, it just might kill you.