Where: Cali Sandwich
What $7 gets you: Delicious Vietnamese sandwiches, and then some. For seven bucks, you can purchase some greasy burger-joint fare, which is similar to methadone in its ability to induce sickly listlessness and regret. Or, if you're near Midtown, you can pick up what Cali Sandwich markets as the Vietnamese version of fast food.
Despite the marketing, this family-run place is more like a fast-but-fresh café, offering the standard Vietnamese soup and noodle dishes. But for the price, you can't beat the bánh mì, Vietnamese sandwiches with meat and fixings on a fresh baguette ($2.50 to $3). Three dollars at Jack in the Box would purchase barely enough to make you feel queasy.
This Asian sub, which has roots in French colonialism, features the standard pork-chicken-beef offering, as well as options like pate, meatballs and tofu (surprisingly well-liked among meat-eaters). It comes smeared with a mayonnaise-like concoction and topped with cilantro, pickled carrots and a hot pepper. (The pepper can be a sneaky bastard, so make sure you remove it from its carrot-and-cilantro hiding place if you can't handle the spice.)
At lunchtime, it gets crowded and a bit loud, but that's not a bad thing - seeing this sunny dining area empty and quiet is actually a bit depressing. The service is quick and pleasant; it's like getting waited on by a friend's grandparents, provided your friend is Vietnamese and has the busiest grandparents in the world.
One recent afternoon, my dining companion and I decided to start with the curiously named "cheese bluffs." For three bucks, you get half a dozen crab-puff-style pieces of fried food and a sweet dipping sauce. These tasted like they'd been fried earlier in the day and kept warm, and they could have used more cheese in the "pouch." But they'd probably be amazing hangover food.
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The sandwiches - I got grilled chicken, and my companion got tofu - were satisfying, but not too heavy. They're great for lunch, especially when doused with hoisin and Sriracha, and far superior to anything else in their price range. My companion enjoyed hers, but insisted the tofu was a little more flavorful at Les Givral's (2704 Milam), a similar sandwich shop a couple of blocks away. The chicken was moist, smoky dark meat. I definitely prefer it grilled to shredded, as the latter can be a bit dry.
We also split a jackfruit smoothie. Cali's smoothies, made with fresh fruit, skim milk and natural sugar, taste amazing when it's brutally hot out, and none of the eight or nine options costs more than $3. (This is one thing Cali definitely has on Les Givral's.) I'd like to try the durian smoothie next. I'm curious how they use fresh durian without making the kitchen smell terrible.
Since it's kind of hard to actually spend $7 -- the whole meal came to $12 for two -- at this place if you stick to sandwiches, we split a sesame seed ball for dessert. The outside is crispy and it's filled with a doughy, sweet mush in the middle. Not a bad flavor, but a strange textural combination. My companion thought the outside was great but said she was confused by the inside, which also happens to perfectly sum up how I felt about girls when I was in middle school.
Recommended: Absolutely. They could raise the price of the sandwiches by half and it'd still be an excellent lunch option.