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Food

Glutton's Guide to Monterey Park: Mr. Baguette & Beard Papa's

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Greater Los Angeles can proudly lay claim to another homegrown ethnic food mini-chain. With only two shops -- one in Rosemead and one in Monterey Park -- Mr. Baguette is hardly poised to crush Subway and Quiznos, but this humble yet expanding local sandwich chain offers a wealth of delicious and shockingly inexpensive bánh mì, AKA the Vietnamese hoagie.

Combining traditional French baguettes and charcuterie with Vietnamese toppings like pickled carrots, daikon radish, onions, cilantro and chili peppers, bánh mì are a staple of low-cost Vietnamese eats, and Mr. Baguette successfully imports Vietnam's homegrown fusion cuisine to Southern California.

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The shops also pay homage to the French half of this cross-cultural culinary trteat. Papered with wall-sized photomurals of cafés and street scenes, the Monterey Park Mr. Baguette shop evokes a vision of Paris as it might look in the background of a karaoke video. When your number is called, it's announced in English, Vietnamese and Mandarin. And as you’re eating your meal will likely be accompanied by Muzak versions of Carpenters songs.

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The Mr. Baguette menu is an impressive and somewhat daunting affair that sports no less than 12 types of bánh mì -- 24 if you count versions on plain and sesame baguettes separately -- including pork meatloaf, paté, thinly sliced beef, chicken, ground meats, veggie ham and various combinations thereof. Meat eaters will have an abundance of choices, but vegetarians will also do quite well.

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Mr. Baguette's bánh mì are a wonderful collision of European and Asian flavors. Their "Special Sandwich" is the classic bánh mì dac biet. The savory funk of the charcuterie and paté combines with the sweetness and tang of the pickled toppings, which is accented by the burn of jalapenos and just a whiff of herby cilantro, all of which is tucked into a perfectly baked piece of bread. The combo of sweet, spicy and savory is not to be missed.

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In addition to more traditional baguette sandwiches, Mr. Baguette offers square brioche sandwiches with many of the same meat or veggie ingredients but with American style toppings such as iceberg lettuce and sliced tomato. NOTE: Mr. Baguette bakes all its own bread, which can also be purchased in loaves. While the traditional baguettes are crunchy, chewy and a bit flaky -- just as good French bread should be -- the round buns have a softer, more doughy texture.

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Aside from sandwiches, Mr. Baguette offers delicious savory meat pies. Stare long enough at these balls of ground meat and spices ensconced in shells of light, flaky pastry dough and the gourmand transforms into the voluptuary as it becomes apparent how obviously the impertinent meat pies resemble breasts complete with erect nipples. The chicken pie, a wonderful ball of peppery ground chicken, is my favorite, but the curry beef with hints of cardamom, floral and citrus is also worth savoring.

The low cost of everything on the menu allows a diner like me (read: glutton) to eat like a king (read: pig) for very little scratch. After two sizable sandwiches, two meat pies and a cup of powerfully strong, powerfully sweet coffee, my fellow glutton and I were stuffed beyond belief. And we had only spent $13 $14.74 (just found the receipt).

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But no meal is complete without dessert, and the best way to top off a Mr. Baguette bánh mì is a "healthy" dose of creamy, gooey goodness from Beard Papa's, a chain of Japanese cream puff stores that have begun springing up all over So. Cal.

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Despite the Ernest-Hemingway-meets-Where's-Waldo logo and the odd name (there's a Flash movie on the Web site explaining the origin of the Beard Papa's moniker), Beard Papa's cream puffs are wonderful. The empty shells -- either plain or covered in chocolate -- lay in tidy boxes behind the glass counter. Once you place your order the employees pump them full of fresh custard from cooled metal vats. The standard flavors are vanilla and chocolate. There are also a rotating variety of special flavors like strawberry, green tea and milk tea, none of which live up to the plain vanilla.

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The delicate pastry puff feels too light to contain the dense, creamy custard. But the crisp yet yielding exterior somehow manages to hold the whole thing together long enough for you to get the treat into your mouth. Beard Papa's aren't your mama's genteel, single-bite-sized cream puffs. These suckers rival the brioches at Mr. Baguette in size and probably top them in caloric content. Tip Of The Day: eat your Beard Papa's leaning over a plate with a napkin in hand. Luscious though their cream puffs may be, you will lose a drop or two of that precious custard.

A Mr. Baguette bánh mì plus a Beard Papa's cream puff already equals a brilliant lunch. Throw in a couple of tacos from a Highland Park taco truck and you've just created the quintessential Los Angeles meal of the new millennium: A quick, inexpensive ethnic mishmash that affords multi-culturalism the respect it deserves, the kind that comes from the gut.

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Photos by Rob Takata