Lin Huynh

“This is it,” a teenage girl told her friend one night, pausing in front of Alpha Bakery and Deli in Hong Kong City Mall. “This is the sandwich place they were talking about.”

A yellow neon Vietnamese bánh mì image glowed in the window.

In a city with hundreds of bánh mì shops, each with their merits and devotees, Alpha Bakery glows brightly.

Its đặc biệt – cold cut combo – was recently crowned by an online food site as one of the best bánh mì in Houston. Customers crowd outside the door at peak hours. Online, food commenters advise buying two bánh mì at once to skip the inevitable return for more.

On the night the teenaged girls arrived, though, it was clear Alpha lavished most of its artistic energy into bread, meat and vegetables – not interior design. The place was almost impassable. Floors and tables overflowed with half-opened crates of fish sauce and pickles, gold-embossed Lunar New Year’s gift boxes, and plastic boxes of freshly made cookies.

But in just 10 minutes, standing at the counter, owner Lin Huynh expertly assembled two of the sandwiches that have brought customers to this door for 24 years.

She started by slicing open two crisp house-baked baguettes. Next, she slathered them with house-made mayonnaise, so thick and golden it looked like soft butter. Then she carpeted each baguette with crunchy pickled carrot and daikon, slices of cucumber, and fresh cilantro.

For the tofu sandwich, she added chunks of marinated tofu, crispy on the outside, juicy as a steak within, sliced into bricks that required a full bite to get through. The star attraction, the đặc biệt, required more time. One by one, Huynh applied layers of charcuterie like a stonemason building a wall: a thick layer of Vietnamese pate, folded slices of pink cha lua, or Vietnamese bologna, chewy barbecued pork, and crunchy, marbled head cheese.

Sliced in half, the end product looked like a bright-colored geographical formation. In one bite, it was spicy, buttery, salty, toasty, crispy, crunchy, fluffy, chewy, fresh and profoundly satisfying.

The cost:  $5.

Even more affordable, only about a dollar apiece in Vietnam, bánh mì are a nationally beloved treat, writes Andrea Nguyen, author of The Banh Mi Handbook.  Like Vietnamese cuisine in general, she writes, bánh mì also reflect Vietnamese creativity in the face of centuries of colonial presence. Each crispy sandwich reflects French baking influence, Chinese charcuterie techniques, and Vietnamese passion for fresh herbs.

Here in Houston, Huynh places her bánh mì front and center: Her ingredients and assembly area occupy all of the counter space. Even so, the rest of her shop practically explodes with sweets. Tables and shelves are lined rice-and-bean cakes enveloped in banana leaves, dried fruit, macarons and irresistible pinwheel cookies with soursop filling.

The store’s audience for savory foods, in fact, usually peaks in the morning, said Kenny Phan, a Houston Police Department officer who stops in on Sunday mornings. “Usually, Vietnamese people eat bánh mì Đặc Biệt for breakfast,” he said. “That’s when you’ll see a line outside the door.”

He orders his bánh mì with a fried egg.

Soursop cookies

While excellent bánh mì spots abound, Phan said, he likes  Alpha for its fresh bread, which is baked on site, and decades of consistent quality. The original owner, he said, opened Alpha shortly after the mall opened in 1999.

In 2017, when a friend tipped her off that the owner was looking to retire, Huynh bought it. First, though, she followed the practice of many Vietnamese restaurant owners by spending weeks learning the shop’s recipes at the side of the founder.

“I hadn’t owned a restaurant before,” Huynh said. After she had learned the customers’ favorite recipes, she said, “we tweaked them a little bit.” Most notably, she customized the mayonnaise with more egg yolks to reach its , distinctive golden richness.

Huyn also continued the incessant toil needed to keep a bánh mì shop going. On a recent winter night, at five minutes to 8 p.m., most of Hong Kong mall had shut down. The grocery store was deserted, its staffers rearranging gift pots of yellow chrysanthemums. A nail salon, shoe shop, travel agency and bubble tea shop were all dark.

But at Alpha Bakery, the neon bánh mì blinked in the window.

Spying its yellow light, a middle-aged man darted inside. Huynh was still at the counter. A few words were exchanged. Then Huynh gathered baguette, greens and charcuterie to make one last sandwich.

— By Claudia Kolker