Baoguette may just be the start of another trend—the chef-driven banh mi shop.
31 Lexington Avenue, New York NY 10010 (b/n 26th and 25th; map); 212-518-4089
Service: Friendly and a little slow when it's really busy
Setting: Simple storefront with a ten-stool counter
Compare It To: Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches
Must-Haves: Classic banh mi, spicy catfish, and bun bo Hue soup
Cost: $10 to $12 for a sandwich, soft drink, and iced coffee for dessert
If I were running for office in this town, my slogan would not be "a chicken in every pot" (though that's a laudable goal). Nope, my slogan would be "a banh mi shop on every corner." Think about it. If every substandard sub shop were replaced by a banh mi shop in New York, Gotham would certainly be filled with a lot more serious deliciousness.
First of all, let's define our terms. A banh mi (the word itself means baguette in Vietnamese) is essentially an Asian hero sandwich. The classic is filled with pâté, slices of what can only be described as pork loaf, pickled vegetables, fresh coriander, jalapeño slices. It's dressed with fish sauce, mayo, and hot sauce (usually Sriracha) and served on a warmed baguette.
In New York City, banh mi shops started cropping up in Asian neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, often sharing space with jewelry shops and stores selling Asian groceries, phone cards, and videos. Then the folks from Nicky's opened an outpost in the East Village, and hipster banh mi joints like Hanco's in Boerum Hill and a new Nicky's in Cobble Hill started coming to a gentrified neighborhood near you.
Now comes Michael "Bao" Hyunh, itinerant Vietnamese chef-restaurateur with a compulsive entrepreneurial streak, who has opened and closed a series of mostly very good Vietnamese eateries. Last year Hyunh opened and left the Tribeca Vietnamese restaurant Mai House (where he was partners with Drew Nieporent) and opened and left Bun in Soho. Now he has recently opened Bar Bao on the Upper West Side, a terrific contemporary restaurant the Upper West Side has been waiting for forever. A month ago he opened Baoguette with his wife, fellow chef and managing partner, Loan Nguyen.
Hyunh must have been a juggler in a former life because he seems compelled to have at least two balls (or should I say baos) in the air at any given time. Baoguette may just be the start of another trend: the chef-driven banh mi shop.
Baoguette is a low-overhead, two- or three-person operation. How low? It's basically a banh mi take-out shop with ten stools. Michael, ever the multitasker, helps out Nguyen most mornings (Bar Bao is only open for dinner). He has been there every time but once when I have stopped by in search of a perfect banh mi.
The menu at Baoguette features four banh mi varieties, all served on properly warmed and crisped Tom Cat Bakery baguettes.
The classic ($5) is elevated by a house-made pork pate, house-made terrine, and thin slices of house-roasted pork belly. Hyunh's house-made pork products beat the hell out of the usual canned and purchased stuff used by just about every other banh mi place I know in New York. The sandwich is filled (but not overfilled) out by pickled daikon, cilantro, and jalapeño, and then dabbed with house-made mayo, meat pan drippings, fish sauce, and optional hot sauce (Sriracha). Thanks to all the house-made meats and condiments, and the Tom Cat baguette, the classic banh mi here sets the bar pretty high for "best banh mi in New York" status. Just for comparison, we bought a classic banh mi at Nicky's and did a side-by-side taste test. Nicky's was fine, but it was no match for Baoguette's.
The BBQ chicken sandwich ($5) has chicken thigh meat and skin, cucumber, scallion, and soy sauce. It's a perfectly fine if unremarkable sandwich, and my least favorite here.
Attention, Vietnamese food purists: Avert your eyes and hold your nose while I say how much I love the baked spicy catfish banh mi ($7), made with cucumber relish, pickled red onion, and honey mustard aioli. Classic? Hardly. Delicious? Oh yes.
The Sloppy Bao ($7) features minced spicy curried beef, green mango, and basil. It's a thoughtfully put together sandwich (based on his wife's family recipe), but it doesn't pack much heat, especially given that Loan Nguyen is from Hue, the spicy food capital of Vietnam.
There is also an array of rolls ($5), salads ($5), and noodles ($7) on the menu, which are made with fresh ingredients, but are somehow lacking in strong, vibrant flavors.
If you're not in the mood for a banh mi, opt for the very good, beefy bun bo Hue soup ($8), which actually has both beef and thin slices of the above-mentioned pork belly, along with vermicelli noodles. On a cold winter's day the soup is a better bet than the beef stew ($7), which has great flavor but dry cubes of too lean beef.
For dessert, have an iced Vietnamese coffee ($2). Made with condensed milk, Vietnamese coffee, and Cafe du Monde chicory coffee, it tastes like melted coffee ice cream—and there ain't nuthin' wrong with that.
Serious eaters can only hope that Hyung and Nguyen stick with Baoguette, because that would mean our great wandering Vietnamese chef has put down roots in this unassuming storefront in Murray Hill.