Banh Mi Update: Tam Ngo Sets Us Straight (Again) with Ba Xuyen
4222 Eighth Ave., Brooklyn NY 11232 (near 42nd; map); 718-633-6601
Service: Friendly and efficient (at least when it's not crowded at 9 a.m.)
Setting: Simple, spacious, utilitarian; fluorescent lights, shiny metal surfaces, a few tables
Compare It To: Banh Mi Saigon Bakery
Must-Haves: #1, #3, #5
Cost: $3.75 for a really big sandwich
Notes: Open every day, 7 a.m. - 6.30 p.m.
Best Banh Mi in NYC? Them's fighting words.
Just a few points:
Banh mi, banh mi. N's before h's. ( ... nails on chalkboard/makes my eyes bleed/the food blog world loves to perpetuate this misspelling.)
I haven't yet sampled the Baoguette sandwich, but I'm gonna go out on a limb and say the sauce you had in the classic banh mi was Maggi and not fish sauce. You might've picked up on the fish sauce if Baoguette uses it in its cha lua/terrine.
The goi cuon/summer rolls look skimpy on the requisite herbs--cilantro, mint, and scallions.
I second and third sarahdg and drybak's recommendations regarding Ba Xuyen. It's not an extraordinary banh mi if you hail from Dorchester, SoCal, San Jose, or Houston, but at least it's in keeping with those standards. Crisp crust, soft crumb, good bread-to-topping ratio. I like the fresh pickles; I like the moist meats. And they don't stint on the herbs, either.
So I'm no dummy. When Robyn said she found herself right near Ba Xuyen (which I had written about in my hot heroes round-up in the Times) I told her bring in six sandwiches for us to sample. And then we emailed Tam to request her presence for the banh mi tasting.
Here's Tam's take and my take on the sandwiches we ate. It's a "He Said, She Said" kind of a thing in which the "he" is a food-pleasure-seeking white guy and the "she" is a smart, passionate, Vietnamese-American lawyer who moonlights as a food obsessive.
Overall Banh Mi Analysis
Tam: The banh mi sandwiches all have pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro, jalapeno, cucumber, buttery mayonnaise, and the slightest hint of Maggi sauce. Bread crust is thinner than Banh Mi Saigon's, but not as delicate or delightful as Bep or An Choi's bread crust. For a decent primer on banh mi: battleofthebanhmi.com.
Ed: The baguette Ba Xuyen uses tastes like a good Italian hero roll. It is a fine sandwich roll but doesn't seem to have the lightness of one made with rice flour.
(All reviewed banh mi are $3.75 each except for the grilled chicken, which is $4. Component listings provided by Tam.)
#1: Pate Thit Nuong
Main components: pate (smoky), ham, BBQ (sweet pressed sausage), pork roll, head cheese (dyed pink meat with peppercorns—not a lot of cartilage here), xa xiu (white roast pork with red rind; for xa xiu recipe, see Guilty Carnivore)
Tam: The meat is abundant; it's my favorite sandwich. Of all the banh mi, this has the best balance of flavors. Good ratio of meat-to-pickle. Sweet, smoky, salty, sour, spicy.
Ed: I loved this sandwich. It had the right amount of crunchy bread and pickled vegetable, as well as various and sundry tasty pork products.
#3: Bi (Shredded Pork)
Main components: shredded pork (boiled), pork skin (thinly sliced textural element), toasted rice powder
For reference on how bi is prepared, see Secrets of the Red Lantern by Mark Jensen and Luke Nguyen.
Ed: I really liked this interesting and seriously delicious sandwich. The pork skin and the toasted rice powder made for interesting textural contrasts. Tam says the pork skin and rice powder are more commonly served with rice than with bread.
#4: Xiu Mai (Meatball)
Main component: meatball (light-colored, fluffy texture, more filler than meat)
Ed: These Vietnamese meatballs are not my favorites. They are light, but they're just not that tasty. In the end, though, even bad meat balls are eminently edible when placed in a hero roll.
#5: Nem Nuong (BBQ Pork)
Main components: pate (smoky), BBQ (sweet pressed sausage, garlicky)
Ed: I like the barbecued pork product, which looked like a thin, split kielbasa. It kind of tasted like kielbasa as well. Maybe there are banh mi shops in Warsaw.
#8: Thit Nuong (Grilled Pork)
Tam: A tad dry, somewhat underseasoned. My least favorite sandwich.
Ed: I liked the grilled pork, which had a lovely streak of fat in it. It may have been underseasoned, but all the other elements of the sandwich lent it plenty of flavor.
#9: Ga Nuong (Grilled Chicken)
Tam: Not quite as dry as the grilled pork, but still underseasoned.
Ed: I wouldn't call the chicken dry at all, thanks to the fact that they use only dark meat chicken in this sandwich.
When all is said and done, Tam and I basically agree about Ba Xuyen's banh mi: They are right up there with the best banh mi in New York. They're pretty authentic and mighty delicious. But Tam would tell us that if we really want a great banh mi in this country, we've gotta head to Dorchester, Southern California, San Jose, or Houston. Maybe if we nudge her she'll even tell us where to go.