Banh Mi So What?

Yesterday I mentioned that my girlfriend and I had taken in some Banh Mi before moving along to sorbet-ville.  I realize that many of you may not be familiar with this Vietnamese sandwich staple, so let me explain:

Take one baguette of around six inches.  Toast it.  Add warm mystery meat pate and Vietnamese salami.  Also add pickled carrots, lotus root, and unpickled cucumbers and cilantro.  Hot sauce and jalepenos as requested.  Eat.  Revel in mix of textures, temperatures, and flavors.

I know I didn’t win many friends with the mystery meat thing, but trust me, it’s delicious – less like foie gras or liverwurst and more like a thin, dry meat sauce.  And, while this is fundamental to what I understand to be the most traditional form of the sandwich, it’s certainly not the only kind available.

I’ve been to three different Banh Mi purveyors thus far: Nicky’s, on 2nd St. between Aves A and B; Viet Nam Banh Mi So 1, on Broome St. between Elizabeth and Mott, and the less-easy-to-get-to Ba Xuyen on 8th Ave. and 43rd St. in Sunset Park, Brooklyn (D to 9th Ave. is probably quickest, but it’s more fun to walk up from the 8th Ave. N stop and check out Sunset Park’s Chinatown).  I would say that Nicky’s is a fair introduction to the format and a good place to take someone of questionable adventurousness.  After all, they have (in addition to the traditional) a thin pork chop variety and even a vegetarian option built from a Portobello mushroom.  Try the Lychee juice box, too – not bitter, like many lychee-based drinks are, and I doubt you’ve had a juice box in over ten years, right?  Caveat: the sandwiches are smaller and a dollar ($4) more expensive than the Chinatown standard price.  Real estate’s a bitch, ain’t it?

Bahn Mi So 1 gets the majority of my business, because they are convenient (short walk from Grand St. D), tasty (most of the time, see below), and they have the most intriguing array of Pocky I’ve ever seen before in my life – if you like Samoas (the girl scout cookie) try the chocolate-coconut flavor.  They also have other desserts too, like a coconut sponge-like cake in a pistachio green, and your usual semi-sweet puddings.  Several colored shades of rice, too, that I haven’t tried.

As to their sandwiches?  Mostly very good.  I’ve had one where the meat was so cold that it made me wonder if it had been accidentally frozen, but generally (and this is probably about ten times now)  everything is fine.  I think I hit them just before closing the single bad time, so be forewarned if you’re trying to sneak in late one night.  It should be noted that the crumbled pork on this sandwich is barbecued, instead of in a pate.  They also have a bunch of other options; I’ve only tried the Lemongrass beef, but that was very tasty.  At $3, this is one of the best food deals I’ve found in Manhattan.

Ba Xuyen provided what I consider to be my definitive Banh Mi experience to date.  Arriving just before they closed (7pm, so hurry if you’re going from work in Manhattan), the staff were extremely friendly and cheerily made my friend and I two of their #1 sandwich.  This was absolutely the messiest sandwich sampled – as we sat on a stoop on 8th Ave. to try and eat the sandwiches, we found that some kind of sauce used was dripping everywhere on both spicy and mild sandwiches.  No matter – the juxtaposition of crisp, cold veggies, toasted bread, and warm meat is perfectly rendered, and with added spice, it very nearly is the total package.  (Unlike the two Banh Mi parlors above, Ba Xuyen actually believes you when you request spicy; don’t order it with full spice if you don’t do spicy.)   Nice tea, too, if you’re into that sort of thing.  Did I mention that this 6” sandwich/meal is $3?

I’ll be going back to Ba Xuyen, no doubt, and I hear there’s another Banh Mi parlor on 7th Ave in the same neighborhood, but don’t be ashamed if Sunset Park is a bridge too far – Banh Mi So 1 will do you nicely, in a pinch, and Nicky’s isn’t a terrible option either, just less cost-effective.

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