JP’s Food Adventures: The Best Banh Mi on the LES

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Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

Banh mi shops have popped up like mushrooms across Manhattan over the last few years. I think it has to be a consequence of the economic downturn. How else to explain the culinary craze surrounding this once  esoteric, frugal lunch item?  Many who had never heard of a Vietnamese sandwich a decade ago now argue the merits of one over another.  They’re cheap, light, filling, fresh and exotic – all attributes earning high marks in my book. Today it’s a banh mi connoisseur’s paradise in and around our neighborhood.

The premise is simple, yet emblematic of the Vietnamese spirit: borrow an idea from French Colonialism, but do it your way, creating a new classic in the process. Take a sandwich sized baguette that has been made with some rice flour for extra crunch. Toast it. Smear one side with mayo, the other with pâté. Add a protein. Cold cuts are the first choice, but other versions include BBQ pork, meatballs, sardines or even tofu. Of course in 21st Century America grilled chicken is an inevitable option, nearly eclipsing the cold cut combo in popularity. Season with a little sweetened fish sauce and maybe a squeeze of Sriracha, then pile on the veggies: hot peppers, pickled carrot, daikon radish, fresh cucumber and cilantro. There you have it: a delicious meal for about $5. Right up my alley.

Here’s a quick rundown of some neighborhood sources for a Vietnamese sandwich fix:

Banh Mi Saigon (198 Grand Street) – This is one of the best known Vietnamese sandwich shops in the area. The sandwiches are generous and priced under $5. If you’re skeptical about mayo and pâté this is the place for you, as they tend to shy away from both. As a result I find their sandwiches a little on the dry side, though they probably make the best grilled chicken version I’ve had. Utilitarian decor and limited seating.

Photo by Cynrhia Lamb.

Paris Sandwich (213 Grand Street) – Practically across the street from Banh Mi Saigon, Paris offers a smaller sandwich on a better baguette. The #1 (cold cut combo) is a good bet, still under $5. Seating is cafeteria style.

Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

Roots and Vines (409 Grand Street) – While their espresso is excellent, their banh mi are a little pricey, and the baguette leaves a bit to be desired. Then again, they succeed where many others fail: making a good, if somewhat soft and squishy marinated tofu version of the sandwich ($7). My photographer/wife is hooked on it, and she‘s one to feel some stigma about ordering tofu in lieu of meat. They also make a “Saigon burger,“ a hamburger with the banh mi toppings, including pâté. It’s a bit over the top, and will set you back nearly $10, but it’s an experience worth having at least once. This place is more cute café than sandwich shop; you can linger here. (They generally play cool music, too).

Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

An Choi (85 Orchard Street) – If décor is a priority, An Choi is for you. Same goes if you prefer to get your banh mi at a place run by people with actual Vietnamese roots. You’ll pay a premium for this, of course. Sandwiches here go for $7-$10, making An Choi easily the most expensive Vietnamese sandwich I‘ve ever had. On the plus side, you could bring a date here without looking like a cheapskate, because it‘s a proper restaurant. Thoughtful lighting, exposed brick, full liquor license – you get the picture. It was no surprise that the high quality of the pâté they use on their “Classic” sandwich shone through. The focus was clearly on the meat; it seemed like they skimped a little on the veggies. The result?  Their banh mi was neither as light nor as brightly flavored as others I’ve had, but it was a good sandwich nonetheless. Perfect for those who consider vegetables on a sandwich so much window dressing.

Sau Voi Corp (101 Lafayette Street) – Forget about ambiance entirely if you decide to venture here. There isn’t even any seating. It’s a Vietnamese CD/DVD shop that seems to do most of its business between a Lotto machine and a sandwich counter. The nice women behind that counter banged out what I consider a benchmark banh mi: simple, good, cheap and flavorful. This pedestrian sandwich has no upscale aspirations whatsoever, with a price of just $4. The #1 (cold cut combo) seems to be their best work. The novelty of buying a great sandwich in a dusty DVD store has yet to wear off for me, and I’ve been a customer for nearly a decade.

Every sandwich I’ve mentioned above is worthy, but the question remains: Who makes the best banh mi around?  That’s an easy call. It’s Ba Xuyen in Sunset Park (4222 8th Avenue).  The place is just a D train or Chinatown bus-ride away from the Lower East Side – well worth the trip.  As for my neighborhood favorite it’s a toss up between Paris (great bread, smallish sandwich) and Sau Voi (OK bread, generous sandwich). Both clock in under $5, which is as it ought to be in my opinion. With more banh mi options out there than ever before I recommend trying a bunch, and forming your own opinion.

JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well,  consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.

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