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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Torta-fied Live

People often ask, “hey Mr. Slab, what are your flavor qualifications?” but I don’t like to brag. True—I could talk about my superhuman sense for delicious, my cheetah-like jaw-flexology, or my fifth-degree black belt in knife-and-forksmanship. I could wax on about my certified training with the truffle pigs in Italy, my études délicieuse at the Sorbonne, and my Ph.D. in Nacho Cheese.

But as you already know, savvy reader, fancy degrees don't matter much in the real world; nor do they make me a “flavor expert.” Food sense comes from something deeper and far more accessible: experience, hitting the streets while keeping eye, ear, nose and mind open to new sights, smells and textures. Of equal importance? A little something I like to call... heart.

Heart may well be the single-most underrated ingredient in gustatory satisfaction. Just ask any barbeque pit master, or Napoli pizza maestro. Or that slender Japanese guy who wins all the Nathan’s Coney Island hotdog-eating contests.

Restaurants can have heart too, and every so often we happen across a spot with a sandwich so full of love it's bursting at the flavor-seams. An instant classic just dying to be shared, with delicious to spare. Like, say, the torta and cemita at Ricos Tacos.
No Mysteries Here!
Ricos lets you know what's on the menu

Some people like to advertise and others don’t. Some restaurants—minimalist chic and low-budget alike—play coy, while others leave little to the imagination. Ricos emphatically falls in the latter camp. Only the laziest of eyes could miss one of the six signs (ranging in size from large to giant) alerting passerbys of the house special.

Restaurants that clamor so heavily for attention sometimes make me nervous, but Ricos' taco trumpets work: they seem more festive and celebratory than ostentious or needy. (Like that happy ricas carnitas to the left; even the pigs are having good times!)

And it's true. This spot has a surprisingly relaxed, welcoming vibe. It felt like a fresh breath of East L.A.: some benches out front, an open kitchen, tubs of horchata and tamarindo, flan cooling in the fridge next to Jarritos sodas, trays with grilled serrano chilies and jalepeno/carrot/onion pickles.

The menu is limited to a few Mexican "deli" classics: tacos, tostadas, huaraches, sopes, some daily specials scribbled on cardboard, and a handful of sandwiches. On first visit I went for a classic torta milaneza de pollo ($4.50), a breaded chicken cutlet served on a soft roll stuffed with refried beans, Oaxacan quesillo (a mild, unripened string cheese), avocado, lettuce, tomato, onion, jalepenos, and mayonnaise.

Señor Delicioso: An Instant Classic

Truth be told, this was the first Sunset Park-area torta to be put to the strenuous Porkchop Express exam. Yet several months and dozens of mexican sandwiches later, it remains by far the best. What's Ricos' secret?

Attention to detail, fine reader. Everything is fresh: the bread (soft with a pleasant chew), cheese (moist and slightly milky when melted by the cutlet), veggies (including big ripe chunks of creamy avocado), refried beans (piping hot, and dripping from the bun), and the cutlet. Oh that cutlet.


The cutlet is, sadly, where many similar sandwiches have lost points in Brooklyn. All too often they taste pre-fried, as though they had been left for dead on a hotplate, and only half-perked up with your order. Milaneza de res (beef) tends to be even less reliable: old and tough. But at Ricos, the beef and chicken are equally, unusually, fantastically well-executed. Both are fried on a large griddle with fresh spoonfulls of oil, and added to the bread at the last second, screaming "eat me" all the while. The portion is generous enough to make you feel special, yet not so outrageous that it overwhelms the other ingredients.

Like the burrito, Tortas originated in America. The Cemita (above), however, can't claim dual citizenship. A market-stall favorite from Ricos' own Puebla state in Mexico, this sandwich differs in three ways: 1) the bread used (a broader, darker, crustier, slightly sweet sesame seed roll); 2) whole chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (which give it a robust smokey, spicey taste); and papalo leaves (from the Aztec word for butterfly, a round-leafed herb that tastes like a frisky, minty, slightly citric cilantro).

As you can see, Ricos' Cemita ($6.00) is as much a looker as their Torta. Both babies got back. And both use great rolls from the same neighborhood bakery (Conchita's), so the bread is a wash. I like the Cemita's use of chipotle, and the papalo strikes a chord of authenticity. But the torta has a tad less going on, and sometimes simplicity works best. Whatever you decide, this is hardly a stressful call: you just can't go wrong with either.

While you're here, try a taco too. At $1 each, they go great with three homeade table salsas (red chilie, spicy tomatillo, and smooth guacamole) and a refreshing cinnamon-speckled horchata. The al pastor (spit-grilled pork) is tender and tasty. The carnitas, fried pork pieces that mix crispy skin with tender chunks, has big pig flavor and goes well with a twist of lime. The pollo, a poached chicken version, is surprisingly light and refreshing, especially when topped with tomatillo. Less appealing was the carne asada, whose good charred steak flavor was marred by too much fat, and the cueritos which was, quite literally, blobs of blubbery pigskin dotted with tiny pork-straggler bits (reverse the proportions and they've got a winner). The only real stinker here is the flan, which they make from a very artificial-tasting mix. Better to try your luck at one of the bakeries on 5th Avenue, should you desire something sweet.

I really can't recommend a place more highly. Ricos price-to-flavor quotient is unbeatable, and these sandwiches are as addictive as Marlboros but taste way, way, way, way better. And for around $5.00, you can afford to fiend. Welcome to flavor country, good reader... it's mighty delicious!

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

Ricos Tacos y Antojitos Mexicanos
505 51st Street (at 5th Avenue)
Sunset Park, Brooklyn, NY 11220 (718) 633-4816

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

I'll Gladly Pay You Tuesday

May is a festive month, good reader: National Hamburger Month, to be exact. If you’re like me, the minute you heard this wonderful news was the minute you ran out and bought a matching hamburger-themed ascot and thong set, with a watch shaped like… give up? A hamburger!

Also if you're like me, you fear National Hamburger Month is a sly scam scripted by the fatcats at Hallmark Greeting Cards, Beef Magazine, and White Castle. But even so, The Porkchop Express aspires to good sportsmanship. And if White Castle–the official sponsor of National Hamburger Month, no less–is telling me to hop on the burger train, who am I to argue? They are the self-described House of Crave, a pioneer in steamed beef technology, a corporation that (if you trust their sales figures and nutritional table) spread more than 7.7 million pounds of fat to American butts and guts last year alone.

White Castle is also one of our first burger chains, so they know a thing or two. They date back to a simpler time—1921, in Wichita, Kansas—when an artery clog was the cardiological equivalent of a hangnail, and burgers cost only a nickel. Which got me thinking… they couldn’t have been the first to throw beef on a bun. How long have people enjoyed the juicy, salty goodness of a well-made burger? From whence, this quintessentially American food? And is it even American?

The deeper I dove, inquisitive reader, the murkier the seas. Hamburger history is rife with conflict, high drama and intrigue, and this surprised me. Because really, we’re not talking about The Count of Monte Cristo, or splitting the atom, or even rolling croissants. This is a sandwich that practically makes itself.You know that old saying, that if you give an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters they will eventually reproduce the complete works of Shakespeare verbatim? The same theory applies to the hamburger. Just replace “infinite” with “two or three,” and “typewriter” with “pounds of ground beef.” Gather your monkeys, give 'em the meat, lock 'em in the kitchen, and wait a couple hours: a foolproof recipe if ever there was. Still, many non-monkey human-people stake vehement claim to inventing the burger.

Who to believe?

By most accounts, Ghengis Khan got the ball rolling. We know that Mongolian Tartars enjoyed ground beef in the Middle Ages (hence steak tartare). And sometime before the 14th century, they introduced the toothsome grind to northern Germany, where it struck a chord—particularly in the city of Hamburg. The “Hamburg steak” (with onions) became a low-brow hit, and the rest is history. Contested history, at that.

German immigrants probably brought chopped beef to America in the 19th Century, and restaurants like Delmonico’s may have served it as early as 1834. But these were still variations on the Hamburg steak theme; things get far more touchy when bread is added to the mix.

Texans say Fletcher “Old Dave” Davis was the first to make hamburger sandwiches in Athens in the 1880s. Hogwash, say the good folks from Seymour, Wisconsin, who stand by local legend Charlie Nagreen and his 1885 flattened-meatball-on-bread. But heaven forbid you mention this to chaps from Hamburg, New York, who laud the Menches brothers (of Ohio) and their Erie County Fair burgers of 1885. Not to be left out, Louis’ Lunch claims to have broiled the first burger (on toast) at their New Haven, Connecticut counter in 1900.

All of which points back to the monkey theory; clearly, it was only a matter of time. And since I'm not from Seymour or Hamburg or any of those other places, I could care less who got there first. But almost 9 in 10 Americans eat burgers, making it the country’s most popular sandwich. So no matter who had the idea (and there were quite a few), it was bright. Bright enough to turn this Pork Tuesday into a beefstravaganza.

* * * * *

The next time Ms. Slab asks what I want for dinner I’ll say “hamburger, please.” And when she brings me one, it better damn well be stuffed with short ribs and foie gras. Even if she blows me off, I wont let it die. I’ll appeal to her competitive spirit, and mutter something like: “but that’s how Daniel would do it.”

This whole exchange is utterly improbable if only because Ms. Slab does about negative-five percent of the cooking in our house. But in another world, a magical land of truffle-lined sidewalks and beef-rib lanes, I might pique her curiosity. She might even ask, Daniel who?

The Daniel in question is one Monsieur Boulud, Frenchman, restauranteur and Bon Appétit chef of the year. I also have a hunch that he moonlights as Channel 4 sportscaster Len Berman, seeing as they bear an amusingly strong resemblance. Stronger, I’d wager, than his burgers do to anything you’ve ever thrown on a grill.

Mild-mannered sportscaster by day, maestro of haute cuisine by night?
(L-R: Len Berman and Daniel Boulud)

Daniel has several restaurants in Manhattan, Vegas, and Palm Beach. His DB Bistro Moderne isn't the fanciest of the lot, but it does serve one of his most storied dishes: a burger. The Original db Burger.

Or at least, that's what it says on the menu. But this is one of those times where science and logic fail. The thing looks like it should: a nice fluffy bun, some red and green stuff hanging from the sides, and a plump patty sandwiched in-between. But I'm just not convinced.

At the very least, the DB stretches the burger to its exaggerated limits. Literally. Just take a gander, you need serious jaw to get a bite. And when you do, the taste is... really not like a burger. More like a steak and a glass of wine and some beef stew all at once.

So what's the story?

Everything is done in-house, from buns to beef. And what a tasty toasted, buttery, brioche-styled, parmesan poppy bun: light enough to absorb all those flavors, and hearty enough to hold it all together. No small task, what with a patty of this girth.

The patty. Well, this is what all the fuss is about. The heart of the burger isn't burger at all, but a piece of foie gras surrounded by shortribs braised slowly in wine, black truffles, and love. I wanted the foie gras to melt more than it did, to share its rich flavor with the other ingredients. But its consistency was far too firm and buoyant to travel so smoothly. The ribs were really the star, a wonderful concoction that enhanced the burger's beefiness in surprising ways. Flashy, fancy-pants moves aside, this was a delicious, well-conceived addition.

There are other fine touches: tomato compote, nice Frisée, and oh those fries. Even better than McDonalds. Parmesan gives them a nice saltiness, and a great texture. I'm really not sure how they work it–fry the potatoes, dust them with cheese, then fry again to a golden crisp?–but it's worth experimenting at home. Wash it down with refreshing hybiscus iced tea, which looks like Red Kool Aid but tastes like a sweet-and-tart flower. Then sit back and enjoy a coffee with their fine petit fours, including the small marshmallow you've always wanted in your s'mores.

Decadence is a hard thing to pull off properly, especially with a dish as down-to-earth as the burger. And this is clearly not the place to satiate a standard craving. Nor, do I suspect, is it something the National Hamburger Month braintrust would approve of. But if a delicious, blatantly un-American twist on our proud pastime piques your interest, head on down. The service is attentive but not overbearing, the decor peacefully understated, and the burger... well, as far as I know, our French friend may be the first to have taken this American classic to such silly heights. Touché, honh honh, and well done monsieur.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

DB Bistro Moderne
55 West 44th Street (betw. 5th & 6th Ave.)
Midtown, Manhattan, New York (212) 391-2400
The Original DB Burger: $29.00


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Game, Set, Match

This is it, patient reader: the end of the Banh Mi line. It was a great run filled with dizzying highs, woeful lows, and delicious BBQ-stuffed paté-primed baguettes. But all good things must end, even at The Porkchop Express, and we wanted to close this chapter with a bang. An informative bang. So here are some helpful tidbits to keep you game-tight.

What Makes a Good Banh Mi?
  1. Good centerpiece. This holds true for whatever they stuff inside: nem nủớng (roast pork), cá mòi (sardines), (chicken), et al. The sandwich gets funk in its trunk from the main ingredient; as it goes, so goes your Banh Mi.
  2. Minimal gnarly meats. Banh Mi makers can sometimes overdo it with pork roll, bologna, pig-belly “ham,” fatback, head cheese, and all sorts of opaque, globular, loafish concoctions. This may help lube the lower intestine, but flavor-wise, a little goes a long way.
  3. Not-too-sweet pickles. It's no secret: a good Banh Mi is all about balance. Shredded daikon and carrot pickle should be sharp, sweet and sour, to compliment the meat. Lazy renditions taste like they were soaked in sugar water which, in addition to tasting gross, also turns mayo into corn syrup.
  4. Fresh Accoutrements. Like cilantro. And crisp chili slices. And firm cucumber wedges. This should be a no-brainer, considering how essential the element of crunch is to a delicious Banh Mi attack. But some sandwich makers are suspect produce pickers. Cheapos have even been known to skip the chilies entirely, instead doubling up on sriracha sauce.
  5. Fresh toasted bread. Ironically, nothing beats me down like a limp, soggy loaf. And in the 21st century, there’s really no excuse for not knowing how to work a toaster. The Banh Mi starts with the baguette, and it's gotta be hot and crusty but not too dry, able to cradle the ingredients without collapsing under pressure.
Where can I find the best Banh Mi in New York?
  • In Brooklyn, our vote goes to Ba Xuyên. Great selection, consistent quality, and delicious sandwiches make this an establishment worth visiting.
  • Our overall favorite was Manhattan's finest, Bánh Mì Saigon Bakery. The city's second-oldest Banh Mi merchant, they keep it simple (with two sandwiches) and... simply delicious. Hands-down the best roast BBQ in town.
I don't speak Vietnamese. Does that matter?
  • Not if you grab our handy wallet-sized reference card (below).

And on that note... we're serving up 3 final exposés on the oldest, the newest, and the most expensive Banh Mi joints in NYC. Take a gander, and stay tuned. Porkier pastures await!

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

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Bánh Mì-bonics

Wont anyone think of the kids? No worries champ, The Porkchop Express has shorty covered. We know the world of Banh Mi is tasty and titilating, but also confusing and intimidating.

After all, the road to delicious Vietnamese sandwiches is filled with shockingly different grades of mysterious meats, wild fluctuations in toasting ability, cataclysmic variations in carrot and daikon shredding, heretofore unimaginable approaches to the art of fresh cilantro placement, and a bunch of non-English Vietnamese words.

Our solution? Another handy patent-pending Quick Reference Guide, a bilingual card of what’s good in the Vietnamese hood. Print one out and take it to go.

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5 Ninth

When Donald Trump wants a delicious Vietnamese sandwich, where does he go? This was the question I put to a receptionist at The Trump Organization. Five minutes on hold, and her answer was inconclusive. The Donald’s lunch minions rotate, so only he was capable of solving this riddle. And unfortunately, he was in meetings all day.

Meetings all day... suspicious answer. I’ve seen that guy on TV, and all he does is fuss with his hair and eye-hump East European models. But some things aren’t worth arguing, especially with patient secretaries.

Curiosity nonetheless lingered. I couldn't help but think about how exciting the Donald’s lunch deliveries must be: every grape peeled, solid gold flatware and rose petals galore (no doubt). But from whence his Banh Mi? I was stumped.

Until I got on the internet. Yes, savvy reader, last week I downloaded the internet and came across a Slashfood.com article entitled "Superb Banh Mi - The Search is Over." Whoa! Was this the sandwich The Porkchop Express has been searching for lo these many moons, something finally worthy of the Donald? Who makes it, where can I find one, and what's the catch?

Name and place? The restaurant 5 Ninth, conveniently located on 5 Ninth Avenue in Manhattan's chic meatpacking district. The catch? The price. $12.

Yes, confused reader.

A $12 Banh Mi.

I share your shock, and raise you awe.

Now last month I paid $4.25 for a mediocre Banh Mi (33% above the going rate), and was none too happy about it. But $12 took the pricing to a cyber-futuristic next-level; it was just crazy enough to work. I’m a product of my environment, and if someone has the avocados to charge an operatic 4-times the normal price for a glorified Blimpie, well… for you, loyal reader, The Porkchop Express spares no expense.

So what does a $12 Banh Mi taste like?

Before breaking the suspense, I’d like to take a moment to explain the atmosphere at 5 Ninth. It’s a good thing they call it 5 Ninth, because there is no f#$%ing sign on the door that says 5 Ninth. Just a discreet number "5" that the unofficial concierge/homeless guy outside referred me too. This was cool... maybe even too cool for school which, as a flavor educator and strong proponent of flavor education, is something I have mixed feelings about.

Still, hunger was in the air, and The Porkchop Express never rushes to judge. I mention this simply because vibe is a big part of the 5 Ninth experience, and will (depending upon your sensibilities, temperament, attire, etc.) either ingratiate or irritate. After all, this is an establishment whose 12$ cocktails have names, ingredients and histories. I like to read as much as the next guy, but mostly on the john, and almost never while trying to get drunk. Their adult beverage menu was a bit taxing, like perusing a J. Peterman catalog when you just need clean boxer shorts.

But when in Rome. So I ordered a drink named after American cocktail pioneer Jerry Thomas: the Tombstone, "Panama Style." It's sweet-and-spicy description sounded like a good Banh Mi match, but it turned out to be a pretty skimpy Tabasco-spiked whisky drink, mixed by a guy in fancy pants.

Its extremely difficult not to call someone "Mr. Fancy Pants" when they are wearing ridiculously fancy pants, but for you, kind reader, and the standards of objective journalism, I played it straight, thanked the man, and waited patiently for what was rumored to be a Banh Mi to end all Banh Mi.

Was it? This wasn't as great as one or two others we've tried, but it did have some tasty things to write home about.

Their brightest idea was probably the Sullivan Street Bakery baguette: it made a whole lot of flavor-sense. Sullivan’s bread is notably crusty and holds its chew under great duress, so it took to the Banh Mi role naturally. No need for toasting or fretting with a loaf like this. The pork was plump and juicy, a little sweet for my tastes but not egregiously so. The pickles were tasty, the coriander nice and fresh. But I wanted to tell whoever added the spicy sriracha sauce to go easy. Making matters worse, Mr. Heavy Hand had an even less subtle way with mayonnaise. To charge these prices and use gobs of Hellman’s (not homemade) struck me as lazy and/or cheap, as did the absence of fresh chilies and cucumber.

Don't get me wrong. This is an all-around sound sandwich on a terrific baguette with no scary "meatzilla" slices. But the price tag seemed a tad arbitrary, far more about style than substance. If I'm going to spend an entire week's Banh Mi budget on one sandwich, I'd better be able to rationalize it. $12 is an admittedly hard sell, but the pitch (including a "rustic" wooden serving platter and a heavy side of sugary shrimp chips) was surprisingly lean.In retrospect, I still preferred this to my $4.25 Banh Mi, if only because it was a far better sandwich and a far more unusual Banh Mi experience. 5 Ninth may not satisfy like Ba Xuyen or Saigon Bakery—both of whom serve superior products at more-than-reasonable prices. But the draw here is different: the scene, the surroundings, the friendly servers and smooth service, the straight-faced preparation of goofy cocktails, the self-conscious cool of a dark-lit, smoke-free bar. And to its credit 5 Ninth doesn't pretend to be anything else... so if this is your bag, go nuts.

Like, dare I guess, the Donald might? After all, if ever there was a billionaire Banh Mi, this is it. Mystery solved, inquisitive reader. Mystery solved.

5 Ninth
5 Ninth Avenue
Meatpacking District, New York, NY (212) 929-9460
Banh Mi: $12.00

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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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Little Saigon Cafe

The chipper new kid on the Banh Mi block, Little Saigon Cafe lies on the outskirts of Chinatown in the lower Lower East Side, not too far from Doughnut Plant and the Pickle guys on Grand Street. They opened six months ago, and their space is clean and unusually roomy, with an airy, open kitchen.

Little Saigon's modest menu has some quirky selections, like "Taro Stuffed with Seafood," "Little Saigon Crab Claws," and several gluten arrangements (Vegetarian Chicken Nuggets, Vegetarian Pepper Steak). Their sandwiches also bring the unexpected: 8 choices include both Chinese and Vegan versions. We passed up the veggie Kung Pao and far more tempting "Sugar Cane Shrimp" Banh Mi to give their "Little Saigon" a try.

To be clear, this is strictly a deli sandwich. (There was, lamentably, no BBQ anywhere on the menu.) But they handle their mixed meats with poise. The complimentary selection included a peppery, almost pancetta-styled pork roll; standard bologna-style Vietnamese pork roll; smoked ham; and a sliced chiar-siu flavored roast pork. These cold cuts were neither too thickly sliced nor overbearing in taste. And the entire package blended nicely, thanks to proportions well-suited to the big, dry, toasty loaf.

For what it is, the "Little Saigon" is good. But it lacks a certain something that transports sandwiches from solid snacks to mild obsessions, and that something is usually called nem nủớng. This is nothing to chase down in a panicked Banh Mi frenzy. It is, however, a nice place to stop if you find yourself in the neighborhood in need of a rest and a munch.

Little Saigon Cafe
201 Clinton Street
Lower East Side/Chinatown, New York, NY (212) 228-8233
Little Saigon Sandwich: $3.50

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

BM3: Cruisin'

It's getting harder to cruise these days, especially without a car. The sad part? Last winter I had a car.

It's almost impossible to stay composed when I reminisce. Parting with my ride was one of the most emotional moments of my life, up there with saving those ophans from a Volcano and receiving the Nobel Prize in Flavor.

I really loved that car. It drove me everywhere, even to the bodega for a quarter bag of Utz. Sometimes we hit the Coney Island boardwalk, but other times we just cruised downtown Brooklyn, checked out a movie on Court Street or bought records at Fulton. Anywhere I went that car followed, and vice-versa. It was like a brother to me…

A brother with a bad gas problem. Leaky fluids too, and lousy breaks and a missing bumper. Windows that didn’t always roll, cracked taillights and headlights, and mediocre mileage. The hood liked to fly open at unexpected moments, especially on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. And my dog took a dump in the backseat... twice.

Long story short, that car sucked. So when a guy from Bay Ridge offered me $40 I counted my blessings and made the trade.

But every silver lining has its cloud: I’ve been hoofing it ever since. And the problem is, there are certain New York neighborhoods where you need a car to cruise for food. Like the geographically challenging borough of Queens, where amazing Banh Mi rumors were spreading like Lupe. I heard the whispers, and knew The Porkchop Express had to follow... to dip, dive, and socialize in the unchartered waters of Elmhurst, Flushing, and beyond... to find, dare I dream, the most delicious Banh Mi ever?!?

Or so I was thinking one day when my buddy rolled up in his Caprice Classic. He was down for a mission so we set off with vague leads, poor directions, serious hunger pangs, and a desire for some Top Bánh.

Hopes ran high. After all, we were headed to Queens—NYC’s answer to the Vegas buffet, with anything and everything available from all corners of the world, at modest prices to boot. Finding a good Banh Mi should have been a no-brainer.

Still, if The Porkchop Express has learned anything in life, it's that sometimes things don’t pan out quite like you expect. Sometimes the straightest paths lead anywhere but. And you just have to roll with the super-crazy non-delicious punches, disappointment be damned.

Below we have a few results from the Q-Boro and beyond, the sum total of this week’s cruise. Chew on that, and tune in next time for a special commemorative installment including the cleverly-titled What Makes A Good Bánh Mì, and an extremely helpful Bánh Mì-bonics lesson.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

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Phở Bắc

So what's the story with Banh Mi in Queens? Nothing great, gentle reader, nothing great. And I say this after a 14-month research mission using the latest G.I.S. technology, two Stealth Bombers, a hound dog named "Big Red," and a gaggle of super-hungry fat kids.

I could go on about our exciting missions filled with exotic locales, rat-infested alleys and pirates—man, do fat kids love pirates. But it all boils down to one thing: there are only two NYC neighborhoods where The Porkchop Express has found terrific Banh Mi: Sunset Park, Brooklyn and Downtown Manhattan.

Notice that Queens did not make the list. I'll spare you the tedium and cut to the chase: nothing remotely tempting in Flushing, so we headed to Elmhurst. We started at Pho Bang. They have pretty decent food for cheap, but don't make Banh Mi. However, in the same shopping center Pho Bac (no relation) advertised Banh Mi in the window. Had our fortunes finally turned?

Unfortunatley not; the place was astoundingly lackluster. Everyone seemed bored with everything. And not "La Dolce Vita" or "ennui" or "chasing the dragon" glazed, but completely dead-to-the-world. Which bodes not-so-hot in a restaurant.

This dull-witted vibe also colored the sandwich selection: there was only one, the Banh Mi Tht. Even the name–"meat sandwich"–was lazy. This Banh Mi is usually given an extra adjective (Tht Ngui, meaning something along the lines of "cold cuts," or Tht Nủớng, delicious grilled meat) that clues you in on the sandwich's intent. But here, we just weren't sure what to expect.

Still, I was all kinds of hungry and for what they were charging ($2.75) they could have served chipmunk on rye. As it turns out, their meat selection was pretty unusual.

The Tht in question was a homemade concoction, slices of ham and flavorful mushrooms suspended in a gelatinous loaf. And it was actually better than it sounds. Not bacon good, but not chitlins bad either. Tho a little went a long way, I appreciated the taste of "new." Standard pork roll, very salty ham, cucumber, cilantro, chilies, and a ridiculously dry baguette rounded this one out.

There isn't much to say about Pho Bac's sandwich; it was hardly the stuff of sonnet. Nor was this odd, unispired Banh Mi worth a butt-haul around Queens. Live and learn, patient reader, live and learn.

Phở Bắc
82-78 Broadway
Elmhurst, Queens, NY (718) 639-0000
Banh Mi Tht: $2.75

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Việt-Nam Bánh Mì Số 1

If a bear poops in the woods should you call that a sandwich? Is it really OK to replace roast pork with gluten and tofu? And why is this one of the most popular Banh Mi spots in New York? These are just a few of the unanswered questions that haunted The Porkchop Express after visiting Việt-Nam Báhn Mì Số 1.

VNBMS1 (as I like to call it) seems eager to cater to a crowd. I say this not because of the store itself (which sells a few Vietnamese sundries and airs Vietnamese TV), but the menu: they serve a frisky fifteen versions of the Banh Mi, including one vegan and three vegetarian.

Even so, I can’t for the life of me figure out why this place comes so highly touted. Perhaps their menu diversity and location—near SoHo, NoLita, Chinatown and the East Village—help. But no matter the reason, the sandwich we tried was mighty disappointing.

In a more charitable mood I’d assume that either A) they had an off day or B) I had the worst non-vegetarian Banh Mi on the menu. But you can’t call something a “#1 House Special” and not deliver. Color me grumpy, but their “#1” set the bar super low for 2 thru 15.

Why the fuss? A preliminary glance, and this sandwich looks mighty alrighty: pork peeking out, nestled by fresh vegetables. But closer inspection reveals crayon-yellow blobs clinging to a pale white baguette. This was the “butter” they keep in a plastic tub and slather on their rolls before severely under-toasting. Given today's toaster technology, there is just no excuse for a pasty baguette. It can only put eager eaters in a bad Banh Mi mood.

VNBMS1 had their proportions right (nice amounts of cucumber, pickle, cilantro and chilies). And their BBQ pork was fine, if non-descript. But the way-too-thickly-cut pork roll tasted like moist sofa-cushion. And that limp roll was a lousy gift that kept giving poorly. In the end, this was a pretty soggy sandwich.

It's very hard to believe these guys move 500 a day, especially considering who's around the corner. But I'll hope they're doing something right, and welcome comments from anyone who has had better sandwiches there. As for the mediocre #1 Special? False Banh Mi advertising.

Việt-Nam Báhn Mì Số 1
369 Broome Street (betw. Mott & Elisabeth), New York, NY (212) 219-8341
#1 House Special Banh Mi $3.00

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Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches

A few weeks back, The Porkchop Express headed out to Sunset Park, Brooklyn to grab a delicious An Dong Banh Mi.

Sadly, we discovered that Nin Van Dang had closed shop after his lease ended. But we got wind that his kids picked up the torch. Their new outpost? A nice Manhattan spot named Nicky's Vitenamese Sandwiches.

Nicky's is a family affair: named after Mr. Dang's first grandson, run by his son Billy (Nicky's uncle), and casually overseen by the old man himself, this is a sandwich shop three generations deep.

Thanks to the Dang family's efforts, East Villagers from all walks of life now enjoy the simple pleasures of the Banh Mi. Nicky's opened on 2nd & A about 1½ years ago, and although their small storefront only fits a couple of modest tables they field a steady stream of takeout orders. Sandwiches come in chicken, portobello, pork-chop, and sardine, but we stuck with the "Classic."

So how were the goods? While it's not fair to compare Nicky's version with An Dong's, I did anyway. It's more expensive ($3.95), no big surprise given their Manhattan digs. But some things reminded me of the old Brooklyn place. Their great baguette, for example: a golden-toasted crusty outside protected a chaste, moist, piping hot inner pocket. It nurtured the flavors and gave solid crunch, no mean feat in the Banh Mi world. The pork was also similar to what I had remembered, a juicy roast with pleasant anise-like sweetness.

Where this sandwich lost marks was in the filling. Not enough filling, as the picture above illustrates. This is something I have griped about before and will gripe about again. It's a shame to see someone with the fixings for a tasty Banh Mi who skimps on the overall package. And by "package" I mostly mean BBQ meat, but also cilantro and chilies. Sensitive reader, this is a ballad I tire of singing: the tasty Banh Mi that could be terrific.

No matter tho, Nicky's is doing fine. In fact, they're opening another shop in Brooklyn this summer on Atlantic Avenue between Smith and Hoyt. Check it out sometime, and let us know if they're still skimping on the goods.

Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches
150 E. 2nd Street (@ Ave. A)
East Village, New York, NY (212) 388-1088
Classic Vietnamese Sandwich: $3.95

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

BM2: Hot On The Trail

I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code, so I don’t know what Tom Hanks thinks he's up to in these stills. But he clearly loves sandwiches and, I would guess, spends the entire movie hunting for the most delicious sandwiches in New York City. The only time he stops is to comb his hair with... yup... a sandwich.

As chance would have it, that’s also how I spent last week. The result? Another installment of The Quest for the Best Banh Mi in New York City, a sequel even more eye-shattering than the original. I sampled both the best and (I hope) worst thus far, and learned three things in the process:

1) Nobody knows who invented the Banh Mi, or if they do they aren’t letting on. Is this what people mean when they say “the world changed after 9/11”? These days, it's hard to get straight answers about a sandwich. Someone confirmed the obvious hunch (French colonialists introduced the baguette to Indochine, and the Vietnamese added their own ingredients). But no one dared guess when this culinary lightning bolt first struck.

2) The two oldest Banh Mi merchants in New York went on record to state that they use the same baguettes in Vietnam. In other words, and contrary to last week's rumor, no rice flour in the mix. Another tidbit from the motherland? Individual-sized Banh Mi are often sliced to order from very long loaves.

3) The United Nations is no help. In uncovering the mysteries of international sandwiches, that is. Don’t get me wrong, I'm all for global peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance. But when it comes to sandwiches, these folks are pretty tight-lipped. Or so it seemed when I called the Permanent Mission of Vietnam to the U.N.

The woman who answered the phone thought I dialed the wrong number. We went back and forth (her: “no, we don’t sell sandwiches, I’m sorry”; me: “yes, but you have eaten sandwiches… in Vietnam, right?”). This was a lose-lose battle: suspicion, mistrust, and mild animosity set in almost immediately. The Secretary at the Permanent Mission of Vietnam thought I was a moron, and I thought she was hiding something.

She transferred me to a colleague one rung up the bureaucratic ladder. I broke down my Banh Mi mission and asked him a few questions. His response? Succinct: “don’t know, don’t care, and don’t have the time.”

I’m convinced the guy said this with a Banh Mi in each hand, and one in his desk drawer. I’ll take it a step further: I now believe his phone receiver was a Banh Mi, as was every doorknob and handrail in the office. They probably have a jazz quintet to greet dignitaries with instruments—drumsticks, vibraphone, trumpet, sax, and upright bass—made entirely of Banh Mi. I bet that guy does nothing all day except close his eyes, twirl, and bite, catching delicious Banh Mi flavors with every clamp of the jaw… because at the Permanent Mission of Vietnam to the U.N., Banh Mi fall from ceilings and spring from fountains.

Either way, sometimes the only course of action is to admit defeat. Such was my case: I had been bested by two diplomats, pros at the top of their game. As I set the phone down, a mixture of frustration and genuine admiration welled within. They withstood my toughest interrogation, and successfully guarded the secrets of the Banh Mi.

Well-played, emissaries of Vietnam. Well-played.

Down but not out, The Porkchop Express did the only thing that made sense: hit the road, combing the city for more Banh Mi tastings. Results below!

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

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Bánh Mì Saigon Bakery

Kevin and Nina hail from from the Cholon section of Saigon, but they made their tastiest mark in Manhattan: 15 years ago, they opened the wonderful Bánh Mì Saigon Bakery.

In those days, a delicious Vietnamese sandwich was hard to find. BMSB was one of only two places that sold Banh Mi in the city. And their original storefront was tiny, tucked away on a sketchy side-street under the Manhattan Bridge, nestled amidst anonymous merchants and hidden behind walls of Fung Wah Buses.

Because the space didn’t fit more than five customers at a time, lines of hopeful sandwich-eaters usually snaked outside. The store also lacked a proper ventilation system, which worked in their favor: the wonderful scent of Banh Mi lured you in from 30 meters out. They sold only one type (the "Banh Mi Saigon"), and typically ran out by 2 pm.

Back then, only two words placed an order: how many Banh Mi, and what style (spicy or regular). Say your piece, step outside, wait a few minutes, and you would soon be in sandwich nirvana.

About a year ago, Bánh Mì Saigon Bakery relocated to a space on Mott Street which they share with a jeweler (Nina’s sister-in-law). Their new store is bigger and brighter, with two small benches handy for those who can’t wait to dig in.

That wonderful BBQ smell is no longer (sadly, they now have high-powered vents), and a Bánh Mì Gà (Chicken) was added to the menu. But aside from these minor details, not much has changed. This is still the best Banh Mi in town.

How good, you ask? Let me put it this way: Ms. Slab once converted to Vegetarianism for a few weeks, and it was this sandwich that brought her back to flavor country. Why? One reason and one reason only. She couldn't resist Saigon's delicious roast pork.

Not everyone puts slow-cooked BBQ, or Nem Nủớng, in their Banh Mi. But this is the heart, soul and strength of Kevin and Nina's sandwich. They pile their masterful meat on a hot crusty baguette spread with pâté, mayo, and a splash of sriracha sauce.

Just enough pork roll provides a note of calm, while crisp cucumber, top-notch daikon/carrot pickle, bushy stems of cilantro, and freshly sliced chilies supply the hot and cool.

Truth be told, this is far closer to a feast than a snack. And as sandwiches go, it is somewhat difficult to eat. Each Banh Mi is stuffed so full of goodness that savoring every flavor in a single bite presents a logistical challenge. You have to be creative and pick a strategy. One giant lunge? Two quick nibbles in rapid succession? Either will provide all the balance you might hope for in a Banh Mi. But you can also mix it up by concentrating on just the roast, or keeping things fresh with a clean bite of veggies.

No matter what you decide, pork – slow roasted in small batches to a deep crimson color and ecstatic heights of flavor – is the star of the show. Nina closely guards her formula, as well she should. It blows away the competition. It's also the main reason this modest store sells around 700 sandwiches a day (701 if I lived closer).

Take it from The Porkchop Express: this is one tempting package. Chewy, moist roast punctuated by hearty paté and fresh chiles. The pickle and coriander excite, while the mayo and pork roll soothe. A lifetime wrapped up in a few bites, and a labor of flavorful love, the pleasure of a Banh Mi Saigon will last far longer than the time it takes to consume.

So throw caution to the wind and give it a shot. And if you really don’t swing down Pork Avenue, consider the Chicken Bánh Mì Gà. They also have a nice light Shrimp salad, and an addictive beef jerky—dry, sweet and slightly spicy—that goes great with beer, chilled Beaujolais, or a really happy day.

Bánh Mì Saigon Bakery
138-01 Mott Street
Chinatown, New York, NY (212) 941-1541
Bánh Mì Saigon: $3.25

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Tú Quỳnh Center Inc.

Does the phrase “headcheese accordion” whet your whistle? If so, run—don’t walk, run—to Tu Quynh in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

This clean, breezy spot single-handedly caused me to question my affection for the Banh Mi, but it also gave me a little much-needed perspective. I learned that the flavor-scale of this sandwich runs wider that the mighty Mekong. Great ones are the stuff of song, the spring in your step, the first flower to bloom. But the bad? Worse than ugly. It’s like stubbing your toe and then being forced to eat it. (The toe.)

Sure, a hot crusty baguette brimming with porky goodness sounds categorically a-ok. But, as I discovered, not all Banh Mi are created equal; much malice can be stuffed in these sandwiches.
"Bad Meaning Bad" (L) not "Bad Meaning Good" (R)

Take the TQ version of the Bánh Mì Ðc Biệt. Their roast pork had the same Red Dye #3 flavor that clings to bad Chiar Siu. If someone decided to whip up a batch of “sugar meatloaf,” this is what it would look and taste like. There was also entirely too much deli meat in the mix. Their pork roll was unusually rubbery, even by the lax standards of Vietnamese bologna. Add large swaths of what I hope was headcheese, but really tasted like sour fat slices pressed with peppercorns, and what do you have? Nothing to recommend, gentle reader.

It still wasn’t all bad. The pickles were a bit sweet, but didn't land me on the receiving end of a “haha, I can’t believe you ate that” joke. And they also did a fine job spreading the pâté on the loaf. But even the bread showed a lack of fighting Banh Mi spirit: very ordinary, a tad yeasty, and woefully under-toasted.

The folks at TQ seemed very nice, but this is a Quest for the Best Banh Mi, not the friendliest. Flavor rules. And on that score, this is one sandwich The Porkchop Express is not eager to revisit anytime soon.

Tú Quỳuh Center Inc.
230 Grand Street A3
Chinatown, New York, NY
Banh Mi: $3.00

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