June 14, 2009

The Last Word on Bánh Mì

Filed under: Food — Chris @ 1:43 pm

It has come to pass that bánh mì are passé—featured on the front page of the New York Times Dining section; available outside of Chinatown, in Midtown, the West Village, and Park Slope; dismissed by Tom Colicchio (who gives no evidence of having ever actually eaten one; he’s tired of hearing about them). Well, we’ve been covering bánh mì from the very beginning on this blog, since before the dawn of bánh mì history, and we think there are still a few questions that remain to be answered.

Question #1: There’s a new bánh mì shop right down the street. Do I really need to make a special trip to Lower Manhattan or Sunset Park for the “authentic experience”? A bánh mì is a practically fool-proof sandwich. With one exception (see below), I have never had a bánh mì in New York that was not at least tasty. Hanco’s in Boerum Hill and Park Slope makes a damn good sandwich, one that I’m happy to eat on a regular basis (not least because they will deliver it to my door).

That said, the best bánh mì I’ve had by a fair margin—and I’ve tried nearly all the top contenders here and here—is at Ba Xuyên in Sunset Park. The difference is in the construction and in the careful balance of ingredients: you need just the right snap and vinegar from the pickled vegetables; the tangy sweetness of the aioli; a few shadings of peppery, meaty flavors (preferably a combination of grilled, marinated meat and pâté); the crunch of the bread, with a bit of heft and chewiness; fresh hot peppers and cilantro, of course; and, finally, you need all of these components to be layered so that the reach your mouth in roughly the correct proportions in every bite.

Most bánh mì go wrong in at least one of these categories. Hanco’s has a nice combination of flavors undone by lop-sided construction, so that one’s choices are to alternate bites of vegetables and meat or to reconstruct the sandwich from first principles. Baoguette has nice ingredients (and an interesting variation on the traditional meats, presented in chopped, cubed form, rather than as slices), but falls short with bread that lacks snap and flavor. Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich inexplicably omits the aioli (or maybe I got a reject?), throwing the balance of flavors off.

Ba Xuyên gets everything right, and their sandwiches cost about half of what you’ll pay at the shop in your neighborhood (the sandwich is probably about 50% bigger too). If you have enjoyed bánh mì elsewhere, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. Take the R train to 43 Street and walk through Sunset Park. The shop is one block past the park on Eighth Ave at 43rd St. I recommend the grilled pork (#7) and a milk tea with pearls. Walk back to the park and sit on a bench while you eat, taking in a beautiful view of New York Harbor.

Question #2: Is there a “fancy” bánh mì worth eating? I first posed this question back in December, after having been disappointed (twice!) by the bánh mì simulation on offer at Sidecar Lounge. I’ve since tried the bánh mì at Momofuku Ssäm Bar and can report it is a damn fine sandwich that fails the balance test, as sketched above. It relies very heavily on the dark, peppery flavor of nicely grilled pork and generous slathering of pâté, and gives less emphasis to the fresh, vinegary bite of pickled vegetables or the chewy crunch of the bread. I wouldn’t warn anyone off it (as I would the Sidecar version), but it’s not my favorite dish on their menu (which would be pork buns, duh, or the spicy rice cakes). Nor is it my favorite bánh mì in town (not by a longshot).

Arguably, what Num Pang and An Choi are doing is also an attempt to “elevate” the bánh mì (although I suppose lumping Num Pang in with bánh mì is a bit imperialist). I haven’t tried the latter. The former are very, very good, totally worth a try, but quite expensive by bánh mì standards (the sandwiches are only $7 or 8, in general, but they’re also not quite a meal in themselves).


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