Totally Worth The Drive: Mai's Duck Confit Banh Mi at Next Door by Josie

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Mai's duck confit banh mi Photo: Tatiana Arbogast

With so many restaurants opening these days (and with so many being so good), Los Angeles has been hard to catch up with when it comes to dining out, especially when faced with the expanse of our map. So we're starting a new feature here on Grub Street L.A. to pinpoint the stand-out dishes at our recently opened restaurants and new dishes at our favorite classics. Here we'll tell you why a recipe really grabbed us and learn a few secrets about it from the chef(s) behind its creation, all to let you know why it's worth the drive, no matter where you may be coming from. First up is the sensational duck confit banh mi, made through a collaboration by Josie Le Balch and her chef-de-cuisine, Mai-Kahn Le, at Next Door by Josie. Come take a look!

Lain between a crisp baguette and cozying up with a slaw of pickled daikon and carrots, the contents of what we call banh mi (a Vietnamese term for bread) vary widely from such stuffs as headcheese, cold cuts, and pate to pork floss, sardines, and fried tofu. In today's Los Angeles, the definition of what constitutes banh mi widens to include pork belly on ciabatta at Mendocino Farms, chicharrón-topped sliced pork parts at ink.sack, and well, this crazy finger-sandwich deconstruction from Red Medicine. Much as these restaurants and their ilk are expanding the definition of what constitutes a solid banh mi, they have also flipped expectations for the sandwich's pricing scheme, from making lunch as economically sensible as a taco truck taco to something hovering in double digits.

At Next Door by Josie, French-Californian chef Josie Le Balch and Vietnamese-Californian chef-de-cuisine Mai-Khanh Le have united on our favorite French-Vietnamese hybrid, engineering a truly gratifying banh mi worth its relatively high cost (fourteen dollars) and no matter you're coming from, well worth the drive.

Josie Banh Mi

Mai's banh miTatiana Arbogast

Picking up and pinching the sharply angled sandwich spurs a light sweat of creamy house-made mayo bearing the consistency of cole slaw sap to gather on top of a tangle of julienne daikon, carrots, and thinly sliced cucumbers. The first munch easily yields through this vessel of a crisp, crushable baguette; a soft, airy bite that remains just firm enough to stay compartmentalized through the whole of the sandwich, delivering each ingredient consistently through every bite. Of the bread, crisp on the skin and pure downy dough inside, Le Balch explains, "We looked tirelessly in search of the perfect bread because its typically made with rice flour, so our bread is as authentic as you're going to get anywhere in town- it's not a French roll!"

A warm sweetness immediately embraces the eater, from the traditional confit shaped in shreds, bearing a lipid-trapped texture not unlike pulled pork. The bite grants juices from the fatty duck, saturated with a spiced cement that recalls cinnamon, cumin, and a few distant, familiar, but slightly out of reach, essences from Le's classified spice blend.

Le Balch details the sandwich's conception: "Mai-Khanh and I collaborated on the banh mi at Next Door. She's Vietnamese, I'm French. Watch out - flavor central! Because we already had pork on our menu, we wanted to do something different but still traditional. Duck confit makes the difference. We cook it like traditional confit but Mai created a secret Vietnamese spice blend she makes into a paste and incorporates."

The sweet innate strengths of the fowl flesh, the noticeable earthy candy of the cucumber, and the roll's soft interior collude on an overriding comfort, while sharp jabs from the pickled vegetables keep the soft mass grounded. Small spikes of jalapeno add a delicate, noticeable fire, while finishing the sandwich leaves you with a glow; a long finish of soothing sweet spices and clean veggies with a background of easy heat. Despite its $14 price, it's been a fixation for us, and according to the bartender here, the staff, too.

Apparently, we're not the only ones lining up behind it, either. Zero-ing in on what makes her sandwich such a stunner, Le Balch leaves us with her own endorsement when she says, "Mai is very precise about the preparation and presentation of the sandwich from our house-made pickled daikon to perfectly sliced cucumbers -- it's the best banh mi in town."

Your distance from Little Saigon or The San Gabriel Valley, and your willingness to pay more than a few bucks for banh mi, might put you at odds with that particular slice of bravado. But we can confirm, no matter where you're coming from, Mai's duck confit banh mi at Next Door by Josie is totally worth the drive!

Next Door by Josie, 2420 Pico Blvd. Santa Monica.