Banh Mi Saigon
198 Grand St
(between Mulberry St & Mott St)
New York, NY 10013
I posted about banh mi’s a bit ago in my Xe May Sandwich Shop post so you can read the earlier post for more details about the historic Viet-French sandwich. I mentioned at the end of the post that though Xe May is great, Banh Mi Saigon is slightly better. Well, after going back to Banh Mi Saigon recently, I decided that I was a fool and that Banh Mi Saigon trumps Xe May by far.
Banh Mi Saigon is a small Vietnamese restaurant bordering Chinatown and Little Italy. It’s interestingly enough run by Cantonese (southern Chinese) people. I couldn’t tell you if this has affected the sandwich’s authenticity because I have never been to Vietnam and tried a “real” one* nor do I have Vietnamese friends** who can vouch for it (always welcome to introductions!) but I do know that it is an amazing sandwich shop. When you walk into the sandwich shop, there are two rows of long tables along each side of the wall and a jeweler who sells Asian jade bracelets and necklaces and such (see top left). I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone buy anything there so wonder if it is wasted real estate… perhaps if they converted it to a mini bubble tea seller… As you continue to walk into this rectangular shaped shop, you approach the cashier and the open kitchen. Stacks of freshly made baguettes are under the spotlight at a cutting station (see top right, center of photo). Service is quick and friendly.
A classic banh mi includes fillings such as pork, spreadable pork liver pate, cilantro, pickled and shredded carrots and daikon, chili sauce and homemade mayonnaise. The essential tastes of a good banh mi need to include a little bit of sweetness, sourness, saltiness, and spiciness. In the US, the chili sauce is often replaced with jalepeno peppers, a type of pepper they do not have in Vietnam.
Pictured above is what Banh Mi Saigon calls “BBQ Pork Banh Mi,” which includes a sweet and salty pork that is crispy on the edges, some kind of ham, pork liver pate, cucumbers, pickled carrots and daikon, cilantro, and jalepenos. The bread at this shop is amazing. It makes that nice bread sound when you squeeze it. Because they make their bread at this shop and are always busy, the bread is always freshly baked.
Pictured above is my favorite sandwich to get at Banh Mi Saigon. They replace the BBQ pork, ham, and pate with juicy, hyper-tender meatballs. These meatballs are definitely some of the best I’ve had (better than The Meatball Shop though I have friends who don’t think the two can be compared since this one is “Asian”).
I’ve also tried their pork chop banh mi, which is a little heavier than the BBQ but equally amazing. The rich flavor of the meat is very balanced with the sourness of the pickled carrots and daikons. I could eat just the carrots and daikons as a salad. They are pickled with salt, sugar, and white vinegar – very simple. I love Banh Mi Saigon because they are
- offer the freshest ingredients
- do a heck-of-a-job at grilling their meats and making their meatballs
- have great bread
- include cucumber in their sandwiches (adds a nice crunch and freshens the heavy sandwich up)
- no frills, just good food
- cheap ($4.25 each)
I have yet to try Num Pang…*** a banh mi sandwich place that is often reviewed by bloggers and critics, on twitter, and even has its own fancy website. All my friends know about it, Asian and non-Asian. I’m skeptical because it seems to have a lot of bells and whistles… is catered to a Western consumer, and is double the price. But I’ll try it out and let you know how they compare.
Damn… looking at Num Pang’s website, they have photos of their sandwiches and ingredients that are clearly taken by someone who thought about the lighting and composition. JUST BECAUSE SOMETHING IS PHOTOGRAPHED AND PRETTY LOOKING DOES NOT MAKE IT ANY YUMMIER. I imagine I’ll love Banh Mi Saigon more even if Num Pang is equally good because, as you can tell, I’ve grown emotionally attached to this jewelry-sandwich shop.
UPDATE from October 9, 2013:
* This is an old post from March last year. I ended up going to Vietnam a few months later with LAW and his family. I can tell you that the banh mi here is pretty authentic.
**Check my comments! My friend who is half-Viet who grew up in the area commented and vouches for it.
***I’ve come so far :D I’ve had Num Pang now, so I have a better perspective. It’s pretty damn good. Slightly more complicated and “fancy” (aka more expensive) but pretty damn good.