Amid the weekday lunch crowd at Cam Anh, Oakland Chinatown's newest banh mi shop, my eyes scanned the steam table as I deliberated over what to get. Grilled chicken, maybe? Or how about thit ko, a dish made of caramelized pork belly, egg, and tofu? Ooh, what's that veggie dish over there?
As if sensing my indecision, Anh Nguyen, the owner of Cam Anh, swooped over to me from behind the counter. "Try this veggie soup," she beamed. "It's really good. Healthy, too."
Even in a small sandwich shop crowded during the lunch rush, Nguyen still manages to say hello to every visitor, make them feel welcome, and encourage them to try something new. It's evident that Nguyen cares about serving the best food possible and building relationships with the community around her, not just hustling customers in and out the door.
"I try to take time, and try to do it right. If you have a long line and you mess up, it doesn't work," she said.
Nguyen's got another goal, though: to spread her love of healthy eating by offering more vegan options and dishes made with minimal amounts of oil and sugar. Nguyen is a seasoned marathon runner. She's preparing to run the hilly San Francisco Marathon, which will be her 49th race. She manages to do all that training on a vegan diet — and just one meal per day. She's also training to be a yoga instructor and is building her meditation skills. "Based on the research, [it's] 75 percent in the diet, and 25 percent in working out," Nguyen said. "And I got that number in my head 25 years ago."
Anh brims with pride when she talks about her vegan lemongrass tofu banh mi. Prior to opening Cam Anh, she visited banh mi shops all over the country looking for a version of the sandwich that satisfied her exacting standards.
"Every sandwich store ... they don't give me what I want," Nguyen said. Some versions were too dry, others used flavorless tofu, while others used tofu that was cut too small. "I told myself, one day, if I have my sandwich store, I'm gonna make my own sandwich with lemongrass."
Nguyen's version used bite-sized cubes of marinated — not fried — tofu. The pieces of tofu were firm around the edges and a little custardy in the middle. The lemongrass packed a tart, acidic punch of flavor, plus it was saucy enough that you won't even notice the mayo was missing. A generous helping of housemade pickled carrots and daikon added crunch and tang, while the airy, crisp bread tied everything together. It's easy to see how Nguyen sells out of this sandwich every day.
The shredded tofu banh mi was another solid vegan option, made with fried thin strips of tofu and taro root for a texture that reminded me of pork floss. The smaller strips of tofu made it harder to discern the flavor of the tofu, though the sandwich was texturally on point.
Still, not everyone's itching to go on a vegan diet — and even fewer of us can get by on one meal per day. If you're not looking for vegan options, you might not even notice them. Out of the 14 banh mi listed on the menu, 12 contain meat. Though Nguyen isn't a meat eater herself, she's also discerning about the meat she uses for her banh mi. While the sandwiches weren't packed full of meat like some versions, Nguyen achieved a satisfying balance between meat and pickled veggies. One of her best sellers is the grilled chicken, which was juicy and packed with umami flavor from an overnight marinade, with a hint of char from the grill. It's also hard to go wrong with the grilled pork, which was nicely crisped around the edges.
While I suspect that some banh mi shops use premade sausages and fish cakes for their sandwiches, that isn't the case at Cam Anh. The housemade nem nuong, or pork sausage, was smooth-textured with a balance of sweet and savory flavors, though I wouldn't have minded a bit more char from the grill. The housemade fish cakes were one of my favorites, with fried edges and moist, flavorful insides for the perfect comfort food in sandwich form.
Don't skip the steam table items, though. The vegan soup that Nguyen recommended to me was a sweet-and-sour variety, made with tomatoes, pineapple, whole mushrooms, celery, and plenty of firm, bouncy cubes of tofu all in a veggie broth. It was hearty and filling yet virtually oil-free. A rotating selection of several vegan and vegetarian entrées is always available. When I visited, I tried a bitter melon and egg frittata with golden-brown edges that managed to tame the melon's bitterness from overwhelming down to pleasantly medicinal. For meat-eaters, it's hard to go wrong with favorites like thit ko or ca kho to (caramelized catfish). Smoky, rich pork with crunchy, tangy pickled vegetables is also a must-order if you spy it on the steam table.
There's also a selection of sweet treats. Grab a bundle of fragrant sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf with banana and red beans inside. Or try a che (sweet dessert drink) from the fridge. An exceptionally strong, not-too-sweet Vietnamese iced coffee provides a delicious post-lunch energy boost.
At Cam Anh, Nguyen has big shoes to fill. Her shop was formerly home to Cam Huong, a beloved, always-buzzing banh mi shop that closed its Chinatown location last October after 33 years in business so the owner could retire. When Nguyen heard the shop was closing, she immediately asked the building's owners if she could take over the space.
Cam Huong had special meaning for her, too. As a refugee from Da Nang, Vietnam, Nguyen fled in the early 1990s, stopping in Hong Kong for a year before eventually making her way to Oakland, where her brother lived.
"I had been in Hong Kong for a year; I didn't have a sandwich. So first thing [when] I [woke] up, I wanted a Vietnamese sandwich," Nguyen recalled. "That's where my brother took me. And when I got here, I fell in love with it."
"I said, 'I want this place.' My brother said, 'Go home and study first; we'll think about it later.' It took me 28 years. Isn't that a miracle, or what?"