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  • Tara Crutchfield

Banh Mi? Oh My!

In the bright yellow building on Avenue A, formerly Bryant Home Gallery Marketplace, Bao and Lena Nguyen bake ‘a lot of happiness’ by way of fresh bread and authentic Vietnamese recipes to make their ‘Dang Good’ bami (banh mi).

The couple lives in Lakeland, where they moved from California two years earlier. “We originated from Vietnam, so we’re very familiar [with banh mi]. In California where we lived, there’s banh mi all over the place,” said Bao, adding that five or six banh mi shops would compete within one city.

“When we came to the Lakeland/ Winter Haven area, we were quite surprised because there’s no banh mi here,” he said. So the couple decided to open a Vietnamese sandwich shop in Polk County.

When they set out to open their banh mi or ‘bami’ shop, Bao said, “We want to make it exactly the way Vietnamese people make it.” One distinction between a traditional Vietnamese banh mi and the Western version is the bread. Here, many shops offer a baguette bun, which according to Bao, is not how the Vietnamese make it.

“We took a trip back to Vietnam right before COVID. We took classes over there to try to understand the beauty of why they’re making it and what makes it so popular. We brought the recipe over here,” he said.

Bao and Lena first looked to open their Vietnamese sandwich shop in Lakeland, closer to where they live. “Lots of our friends recommended the Downtown Winter Haven area,” Bao said. “We heard a lot of good things about the area, and the price is better as well. So, we decided to go with our first shop over here.”

Throughout 2020, they tested recipes and offered catering to businesses, taking in feedback and improving their product along the way. Bao and Lena started renovations on their Downtown Winter Haven sandwich spot in January 2021. “We were hoping to get to Winter Haven sooner, but it took us a while to get the place done. Finally, we got done in August,” Bao said. They began a BL Sandwich soft opening on August 18 and hope to have a grand opening in mid-November.

BL Sandwich is short for the establishment’s full title, Bách Lac Bakery. Bao said, “In Asian Vietnamese meaning, Bách means ‘a lot’ and Lac means ‘happiness.’ So the name basically means ‘a lot of happiness.’” The B and L also stand for the couple’s initials – Bao and Lena.

“We wanted to bring a little bit of everything,” Bao said of their menu. The traditional and most popular among Vietnamese folks is their number one, Combination Bami. The special Vietnamese style sandwich is served with Vietnamese jambon, pork roll, head cheese, pate, daikon radish, pickled carrot, cucumber, cilantro, and jalapeno.

“In Vietnam, they don’t have green jalapeno like we have it here. They use a tiny Vietnamese chili that’s super spicy. I didn’t want to introduce it just yet because I’m afraid it’s too spicy.” Bao says iron-palate customers curious about the piquant pepper can request it on their BL Sandwich to enjoy it the way the Vietnamese do.

The recipe for this sandwich hails straight from Vietnam, and Lena does all the cooking. According to Bao, the banh mi is a French-inspired sandwich of which the Vietnamese adapted the French baguette baking style for a lighter, more airy bread with a crispy outer crust. “The outside needs to be grilled crunchy and stay crunchy for a while. The inside not only has to be soft but also needs to be fluffy,” he said, adding that Vietnamese people continue to develop different shapes and forms of this bread, which BL plans to introduce to their customers in the future.

“When you open the bread, there’s steam coming out, and that’s how Vietnamese people developed it that makes it stand out from other bread. It’s a challenge to replicate that bread,” Bao added. He and Lena make their bread fresh, in-house, and from scratch every day. They stay in touch with their culinary teachers in Vietnam, with whom they have regular video calls to continue improving the craft.

The BL Sandwich menu has a little something for everyone. If a Combination Bami isn’t your speed, they offer grilled pork, grilled chicken, meatball, Char Siu (barbecue pork), sardine, and vegan bami sandwiches. “We have special sauces for each of them as well. We have a special meat sauce for grilled pork, grilled chicken, and for the meatball, we have our own sauce too,” Bao said. “We bring in some creativity with it like the sausage and egg, which is my favorite.”

The Nguyen’s stay up to date on the culinary goings-on of Vietnam to bring new styles and recipes into their shop. “In the future, we’re looking to bring more specialties, which is one of the things other shops won’t have. That’s because we actually go back there [to Vietnam], and the bami in Vietnam is constantly evolving, and they’re bringing new recipes every day.”

One such specialty is roasted pork with crispy skin. “Until now, I didn’t know of any shop in Florida that did it, but we’ll bring it as a special,” he said.

In addition to their bangin’ bami, BL Sandwich offers pastries, snacks, and beverages like Tiger Sugar Milk with Boba, Lychee Tea with Boba, and Vietnamese Coffee with Condensed Milk.

The BL Sandwich shop owners have utilized their first few months of a soft opening as a learning and growing period. “We always ask for feedback, and the more we improve it, we see the more positive a customer responds to it,” said Bao of their food. The couple pride themselves on listening to customer feedback and working to improve their food constantly. One change they made per customer feedback was increasing the size of their fresh buns.

When we spoke, Bao and Lena were working on their website, ordering app, menu, and reward program to further elevate the customer experience. “I know life is busy, and people need a quick grab and go, and something fresh, nice, and delicious as well. We want to make it easier for people,” said Bao.

Follow BL Sandwich’s social media for details on a grand opening date, specials, and more!

BL Sandwich

260 Ave A SW, Winter Haven

(863) 229-5507

FB: BL Sandwich

IG @blsandwichf

Photography by Amy Sexson


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