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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Still #1

It's a competitive Banh Mi world out there, good reader. In about a decade, this sandwich has risen from relative NYC obscurity to the forefront of pork-related satisfaction. New spots are opening from Chinatown to Williamsburg and, if Mario “Big Red” Batali is any benchmark, it's only a matter of time before this humble street treat receives a high-brow fusion makeover (his Iron Chef version used chiar siu and spiny lobster).

What with all the pomp and flutter, your friendly neighborhood Porkchop Express wanted to revisit an old favorite. Call it a re-calibration if you will, a spiritual banh mi quest to get centered: somewhere between Siddhartha and Stella (of “groove” fame). So we headed down to our top-rated Banh Mi Saigon Bakery, to see if it still passed muster.
Faster than the BQE: the new menu at BMSB now boasts an unprecedented 6 sandwiches

If you read our first review, you know that for years Kevin and Nina Pho offered only one variety: the #1 (Pork) Saigon, prepared either spicy or not. We loved their focus and lack of pandering. They did one thing, and one thing great. And when they added a Chicken varietal we hardly blinked (maybe even pork-o-phobes deserve a seat at the banh mi party). Yet imagine our surprise when a new menu appeared over the counter last December boasting a whopping 6 sandwiches.

Yes, good reader, times seem to be a' changing, and at BMSB this means a little variety. It turns out they now offer everything from Sardine to Meatball to (gasp) Vegetarian. So rather than simply retread old territory we decided to roll with the new, and ordered two of Nina's most interesting entries for a tasting. How do they stack up?
Atsa mighty fine meatball!

First up, the #5 Banh Mi Xiu Mai ($3.50). The baguette comes with all the standard trappings (cucumber wedge, cilantro sprigs, shredded pickles, sliced jalepenos) and one twist: giant savory meatballs. I've eaten my share of meatball banh mi, and have three standard complaints: temperature (cold), taste (bad), and amount (meager). Now take a look at the picture above, and you'll see a sandwich that rises above the fray. First off, visually it gives fine Italian meatball heroes a run. Second, it's bursting with the healing goodness of meatball. Gi-mongous. Third, the flavor is flat-out yummy. Consider this a great winter option, something to warm you from tongue-to-toes. The meatballs themselves are 100% pork, moist, juicy and crumbly, mildly seasoned and braised in a slightly sweet sauce that includes onion and fresh sliced tomato.
Vegetarian: no longer just for quitters!

Much as we wanted more pork, we decided to resist. After all, we get the occasional email from readers asking for the best vegetarian banh mi in New York City. My stock response is “who cares,” but let me break ranks and suggest one possibility: the #6 Banh Mi Chay, a/k/a the “Buddhist” ($3.95). As with the #5, it arrives in standard banh mi form... save one thing: nary a whiff of pork in sight. Most veggie banh mi use some form of gluten, but BMSB has developed a sandwich filled to the gills with something different: a non-meat stir fry dominated by tofu and mushrooms.

The result is surprisingly good. The saltiness of the sauce pairs nicely with the neutral bean curd and sweet pickled daikon and carrots, while the veggie variety provides non-stop excitement: chewey tofu skin yields to fresh tofu chunks, which give way to glass noodles and shredded cabbage, multiple types of mushrooms, and (here was the kicker) whole thumb-sized quail eggs whose creamy yolks burst upon first bite. This is about as interesting a banh mi experience as I've had, and certainly the most unusual. But it works. And because Nina experiments and rotates the ingredients, don't look for the excitement to let up anytime soon. To be clear, if it came down to this or her roast pork, it's a no-brainer. But for our vegetarian friends, I have yet to find another meatless mix that so well captures that fighting Banh Mi Spirit we have grown to love.
Beef jerky time!

When all was said and done, the meatball and the veggie sandwiches actually made for great bedfellows. They hit entirely different flavor centers (salty/sweet, crisp/juicy, messy/really messy), and balanced each other nicely. And yet, we were still ready for some... desert. Enter an old favorite, their dry, sweet, hot-pepper flaked beef jerky. Nina orders it from Southern California, where they make it extra spicy for her (tho she had to call and complain once because, as she put it, if her 4 year-old son can eat it without blinking it's probably not spicy enough). Bottom-line, it's addictive; especially with a beer on a sunny afternoon.
Dropping knowledge: Nina Pho, flavor super-genius, discussing her new sandwiches

When BMSB moved in to a larger store, it allowed them to hire an additional employee which, in turn, freed Nina up to develop new sandwiches... to delicious results. In addition to Meatball and Buddhist, they also offer a #3 Sardine (the bestseller amongst the newbies) and #4 Paté Cha (favorite amongst her Vietnamese cutomers). As for us? Well...

One recent morning we arrived early, and ordered the day's first sandwich: a piping hot #1 Banh Mi Saigon. The fabulous pork was tender and chewy, the pickles crisp and slightly sweet, the bread crusty and hot enough to just melt the mayo. And it struck us: we'd be hard-pressed to give this bad boy up. So while we salute the recent outcrop of banh mi spots, part of us can't help but think: why go anywhere else?

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

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Blogger Kristen said...


I think I'll have to back there again, because I was deeply unimpressed last time.

1:56 PM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

wha?!?! did you try the #1 "spicy"? it brings the healing power of pork with every bite! to each his own, i s'pose....

1:04 PM  
Blogger Kristen said...

Maybe it was because my husband stopped in just before they were closing up shop for the day, or maybe I was just having a bad day, but I wasn't too impressed. The bread was kinda tough, they were a little skint with the vegetables...

But I am nothing if not forgiving when it comes to pork products, so I'll order up a #1 [spicy] next time I'm nearby.

3:12 PM  
Blogger Clint said...

I love their banh mi. But I'm concerned: I've been by there several times in the last week or two and the store has been closed. Gate down, no sign.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Clint said...

Not to worry. I just called them. They're there. They had just closed when I had passed by. Whew!

2:05 PM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

kristen, mid-day is definitely best, or (usually) freshest. early morning, even. curious if you had a better banh mi experience there...

& clint, one month i kept stopping by on the day they are closed... each time forgetting that was the day they were closed.... i hear you man, it's stressful!

4:19 PM  
Blogger s.m. koppelman said...

Surely you've had the sardine by now. They're plump, fresh-tasting fellas, not those scrawny, briny things from a can. It's the fave here at hatless HQ.

10:43 PM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

smk, it's funny you should ask - i actually HAVEN'T had the sardine. i've thought about it a few times but Nina always steers my porkwards. this is high praise tho, i'll have to dive in sometime... or send a proxy on the pick-up mission

3:33 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

I thought of your hunts around BK looking for BM: http://is.gd/rVAt


11:15 AM  
Blogger Xoff said...

You missed one that I personally think is the best in NYC. Saigon on Broom and Elizabeth. Freshest bread, have a chopped chilly sauce rather than the jalapeno. Make Paris taste like dog food. Give it try.

4:18 PM  
Blogger Xoff said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:18 PM  

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