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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Sáu Voi Corp

Sau Voi was the first store to offer Banh Mi in New York City, and for that they deserve our thanks. The owner Richard Lee hails from Saigon, but he got his Manhattan start on Bowery about 15 years back. He has since moved to the corner of Lafayette and Walker. Only a stone's throw from the courthouses, his shop is a model of eclectic space-management. He stuffs Vietnamese tapes, cds and dvds, alongside sundries, gelatins, noodles, spring rolls, appetizers, beverages, sweets, and an impressive 16 varieties of Banh Mi... in less than 200 square feet of retail space.

Appearances can deceive, and this is one of those times. To the casual observer, this place might easily be mistaken for a total dump: a brow-beaten nictotine-yellow awning, resting above windows crammed with lottery ads, cigarette deals, and what might have been lotion. Only one thing distinguishes Sau Voi from your average neglected bodega. A neon sign (almost lost amidst the shuffle) advertises "Vietnamese Sandwich" in two languages, gently hinting at the bounty within.

Said bounty is served by two impressively nimble folks stationed behind a very cramped counter. Plastic cups lay stacked in wait, filled with a few inches of thick Vietnamese coffee and even thicker condensed milk (ice is added to order), while baguettes toast in a small oven perched on a shelf. The staff distributes everything–sandwiches and papaya salads, cigarettes and sodas–with remarkable efficiency. These are pros at work.

Faced with so many sandwich options in such a small space, I had a bout of brainfreeze. Mr. Lee suggested a Saigon standard: the Bánh Mì Ðặc Biệt, a crusty baguette stuffed with Turkey, Ham, and Pork Roll. With nary a counter, table or bench in sight, I posted up outside on some sort of construction machine, and took my sandwich and got to business.

The Ðặc Biệt was nicely balanced, a tasty all-around eat despite the lack of fresh chilis and slightly heavy deli meat content (weeding out a few excess slices worked wonders). Most memorable, however, was their paté. Paté is usually a non-descript afterthought in the New York Banh Mi, unmemorable and low-grade. By contrast, Sau Voi uses a dark, smoky, savory, peppery spread far closer to deviled ham than a French terrine.

The paté worked great when paired with nem nuong in the tasty #16 Banh Mi Saigon. A riff on the #1, this sandwich eschewed turkey for BBQ pork with flavorful results. This was even better than the Ðặc Biệt, but I still wished for two things: crisp green chilies, and fewer lard slices. I have a limited threshold for back fat, and there were too many cuts of what looked like old boiled bacon betwixt this loaf.

Glitches aside, this was still a great sandwich, one of the tastiest in town: well conceived, efficiently constructed, with terrific paté, good BBQ and fresh veggies. They run a tight ship and have their formula down. And with so many varieties, there is no shortage of headcheese-free options to choose from. The possibilities have us eager to return.

Sáu Voi Corp
101-105 Lafeyette St., #3 (@ Walker St.)
Chinatown/City Hall, New York, NY (212) 226-8184
Banh Mi (all varieties): $3.00

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Blogger Lee-Sean said...

I live 3 blocks away and just tried the place for the first time today. Delicious! Definitely going back.

2:46 PM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

this is the oldest banh mi spot in the city, yet for some reason it's one of the least known.....glad you liked

4:09 PM  

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