The Winners!#1: Bành Mí Zòn
369 Broome Street, New York NY (map); 212-219-8341
I apologize if I went a wee bit off-the-walls a couple weeks back in my rant about the New York Times article on bành mí. Of course, in my little episode, I failed to provide a key piece of useful information. Namely, where in Manhattan can you find the best sandwich? (I do hopefully some day hope to give a recommendation for best in the country, but I've got a bit more tasting to do before I'm ready to come down on that argument)
Vietnamese sandwiches are a foodstuff very close to my heart. A product of French colonial Vietnam, the sandwich combines the basic French baguette (cut with rice flour, giving it a crisper crust and a lighter, more tender crumb) with Vietnamese takes on common French cold cuts or roasted meats, a smear of a sweet, buttery, mayonnaise-like spread, and plenty of vegetables—cucumber, cilantro, pickled carrots and daikon, and chili peppers. When done right, they're an insanely tasty combination of contrasting textures and flavors, but the overall impression, as with much Vietnamese food, is of lightness and freshness.
The very best bành mî I've had was, not surprisingly, in Saigon—the epicenter of the bành mí universe (don't bother with the sandwiches in Northern Vietnam). It started with a whole pork belly roasted until crisp and crackly on the outside, but still dripping with juices in the center. The meat got finely chopped with a large Chinese cleaver, mixing the crispy bits together with the rich bits, then got sandwiched into a freshly baked baguette with the traditional accompaniments along with a sprinkle of Maggi seasoning (yes, they do that in Vietnam). What was stunning was that pork belly, that richest of foods, still managed to taste light and fresh when placed in a bành mí. It was as if someone had managed to stuff Panthro's strength into Cheetara's body while still maintaining her lightening-fast reflexes and speed, if you get what I mean. Here's a useful tip: If a bành mí tastes heavy or overly rich, there's something wrong with it.
That's all well and good, but I live in New York now. So where do I get a decent bành mí here? This week, I visited bành mí shops all over Manhattan to answer this question. And here's the truth: Manhattan may be a pizza town, a hot dog town, a burger town, and maybe even a Chinese food town, but it ain't a bành mí town. (We're excluding outer boroughs for the moment; stay tuned!) That's not to say that any of the sandwiches were horrible—they were pretty much all tasty to some degree—but on average, the sandwiches just don't compare to those in areas with more concentrated Vietnamese communities (the bakeries in Dorchester were my go-to in Boston). Fortunately, there were a couple of shining stars on the pork roll carpet.
View NY Banh Mi Map in a larger map
Our tasting involved only those shops that claim to specialize in Vietnamese sandwiches. High-end cheffy creations or one-offs at non-sandwich shops were cut from the list. We also left off shops that serve similar Cambodian-style Num Pang.
Here's our lineup (In alphabetical order)
- An Choi
- Bai Cha
- Banh Mi Saigon Bakery
- Banh Mi (formerly Mangez Avec Moi)
- Banh Mi Zòn
- Baoguette Café
- Co Ba
- Paris Sandwich Bakery
- Saigon Vietnamese Deli
- V-Nam Café
There's three parts to the perfect bành mí:
- The Bread (10 points): More than anything, it's the bread that defines a bành mí and separates it from the rest of the sandwich crowd. Made with a combination of rice flour and wheat flour, a bành mí baguette should have the appearance of an excellent French baguette, but with a much lighter, fluffier crumb and a distinctly crisp and crackly crust. The baguette should be fresh (never stale!), and must either be hot out of the oven, or properly reheated and crisped up after ordering.
- The Main Ingredient(s) (10 points): The classic bánh mì đặc biệt should be made with a combination of at least three ingredients: a smooth and luxurious pâté, thinly sliced Vietnamese ham or bologna, and thinly sliced pork head cheese. In the New York area, it seems like chopped barbecued pork comes standard as well. When present, we like our barbecue pork to be moist with a balanced sweetness.
- The Vegetables and Condiments (5 points): The pickled carrots and daikon radish should be sweet and sour with a fresh crunch. No soggy vegetables in our banh mi, please! Lazy cooks who grate their vegetables on a grater instead of cutting matchsticks likewise get no sympathy from us. The cucumber and cilantro should both be bright green and crisp, and the mayonnaise-like spread (generally a mixture of mayonnaise and butter) should be modestly applied with a sweet and ever so slightly tart flavor. Maggi seasoning or soy sauce are optional, and the heat in a hot sandwich should come from freshly sliced peppers (preferably bird chilis). We consider the use of shelf-stable bottled hot sauce (hello Sriracha!) to be below the standards of a truly excellent bành mí.
The Winner: Bánh Mì Zòn
The space is light and inviting (if small), and it's one of the few shops that seems to care about decor and cleanliness in a serious way. But none of that matters if the food ain't good. Fortunately, the classic bành mí from Bành Mí Zòn ($5.75) is about as good as they get. The Baguette is fresh with a light tender crumb and a well-blistered surface that maximizes crackliness. Their pâté is the star of the stuffing, with a luxuriously rich smoothness and none of the gray oxidized look that plagued most of the other restaurants. Likewise, their ham and head cheese terrine are fresh and flavorful, while shredded chicken floss adds a unique sweet and savory kick that pushes the sandwich over the top. Vegetables are as fresh as you could hope for. In fact, the only downside? We weren't crazy about their mayonnaise, which seemed like standard American-style. It's a minor complain on an otherwise excellent sandwich.
For a full breakdown of the lineup, click through the slideshow above.
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