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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Phở Sàigòn Restaurant

These are trying times we live in, good reader. Not much in this mixed-up crazy world makes a whole lot of sense. Except, of course, the fact that Vietnamese Restaurants usually serve lousy Banh Mi. After all, this is street food we're talking about, sandwiches wrapped in a little paper and eaten on the move. Hardly an experience enhanced by seats or tables or waiters.

That being said, the Vietnamese Restuarant Banh Mi (VRBM) we've tried in NYC always taste like awkward afterthoughts: loaves (dry from neglect) stuffed with obscure slices of gelatinous “meat.” In mathematical terms, where R represents Restaurant, B represents Big, and S represents Shiny, the formula goes something like this:

R + (BS) = lousy Banh Mi

Still, you know the old saying? The one about making and breaking rules? I mention this only because one of (if not the) best new Banh Mi in town just happens to come from Chinatown's biggest, shiniest new Vietnamese restaurant: Pho Saigon Restaurant, to be precise.

Pho Saigon stepped into a dubious space, 52 Bowery a/k/a the site of the old New Silver Palace Restaurant. This 900-seat former dim sum hall was perhaps best known for a long-running, high-profile Federal labor dispute. But that's all in the past; controversy has long faded, and the renovated interior is bright and pleasantly protest-free. Lured in by pictures of tasty-looking dishes above the door, The Porkchop Express was more than ready to try something new.
The #55 Banh Mi Saigon

We sat down and cut to the chase: one #55 Banh Mi Saigon (“House Special Sandwich”). It took a few minutes to prepare, and that boded well; this wasn't your typical pre-fab, hastily-made VRBM. Not at all. #55 came fully loaded with sliced ham, unobtrusive pork loaf, chopped chiar siu-style pork, peppery pork roll, and grilled BBQ pork. You sense the theme? Porky goodness, paired with the usual suspects (cilantro, carrot/daikon pickles, mayo, hot peppers).

For so much action, this was a surprisingly light and balanced sandwich. The reason? Pho Saigon doesn't overdo any one ingredient, and the proportions are sound. Discreet slices and thoughtful chunks let the flavors blend without competing. And in such agreeable moderation, even the fatty pepper-pork roll (a personal unfavorite) sorta makes sense. Add some well-chosen bread–soft, airy French baguettes served crisp without being overtoasted–and you're left with a winner.
The #59 Banh Mi Nem Nuong

Whilst eating, we couldn't help but notice several folks ordering enticing plates of long grilled porkburger-type things. So we cleared the palate with a glass of sweet Fresh Lemonade ($1.25) and went for round two: a #59 Banh Mi Nem Nuong (“Roast Pork Vietnamese Sandwich”). The BBQ meat arrived fresh off the grill, stuffed in a baguette spread with some seriously tasty paté. This was all well and good, but I found myself wishing I had ordered it on rice, and reminiscing over the balance of flavors that made #55 so satisfying.

Regardless, one thing was clear: rethink the VRBM policy. Every once in awhile it's good to take stock of your assumptions and rethink your prejudices, and for The Porkchop Express that time was now. So we got up to shoot the breeze with Pho Saigon owner Phong “John” Lam, to get the story behind the fellow bold enough to break with tradition and serve a truly tasty NYC Restaurant Banh Mi.
Good peoples: Phong Lam spreads the cheer at Pho Saigon

Phong's route to the Bowery was long. Born in China and raised in Vietnam, he and his Wife moved to Portland, Oregon before heading East. He eventually opened a shop on Canal selling tourist goods, but a brutal fire in 2005 made him rethink the whole operation. The store (and everything inside) was ruined, so Phong switched gears and headed to Vietnam to regroup, eat, cook and gather recipes. He returned with a plan: souvenirs be damned, he would open a restaurant in February of 2006.

It wasn't easy getting started, and the high kitchen/waitstaff turnover hardly helped. But as stability set in, so did business begin to grow. And through it all, the Lam family stuck together. Phong, his wife and kids work hard, and their good-natured chemistry is hard to miss. They provide the place with a welcoming sense of calm, a feeling of harmony not always evident in Chinatown's giant bustling eateries.

This understated confidence also manifests itself in the food, and in Phong's adventurous spirit. He tinkers with different Banh Mi combinations every so often, testing and prodding en route to delicious. As a banh mi enthusiast and fellow conquistador of flavor, I for one applaud his efforts.

Pho Saigon is open til 10pm daily, so you can scratch that after-hours Banh Mi itch in style!

Phở Sàigòn Restaurant
52 Bowery Street
Chinatown, New York, NY
(212) 226-3751/240-9488
Banh Mi: $3.00

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Blogger Christina said...

the food id great btw you should show some more pictures.

6:38 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

the food is fantastic by the way i think you need to post up some more pictures of the other food that you guys serve.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Binh said...

I never think Chinese-owned restaurants can serve good Vietnamese dishes.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Huy said...

errr if im not mistaken he did grow up most of his life in vietnam....so...that has nothing to do with him being chinese now does it?

5:52 PM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

huy- thanks for reiterating that point...

just to clarify, Mr. Lam was born in China, but moved at a very young age to Viet Nam; his wife was born and raised in Viet Nam. so this is not, by any stretch, a "Chinese-owned restaurant."

& christina- we were only there for the banh mi. if you have other faves, by all means suggest away....

8:21 PM  
Blogger Melissa said...

I think that this is a great Vietnamese restaurant as well. Compared to other restaurants it has a good environment and vibe to it, which makes eating there a pleasure. As for the Viet Banh Mi's I've got to say it is one of the best! Real meat grilled and sauced, unlike other Viet places where you don't really know what they did to it.

10:20 PM  

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