140 East 41st Street, New York (b/n Third and Lexington Ave.; map); www.numpangnyc.com
Service: Friendly, except for the "No Modifications" to menu policy
Setting: Standing room only counter with graffiti art
Must-Haves: Grilled Peach Sandwich, Brisket Sandwich, Roasted Cauliflower Sandwich, Tropical Fruit Salad
Cost: $6.75 to $9 for sandwiches; $2.25 to $4.50 for sides
When Num Pang opened its first sandwich shop in the Union Square-area the spring of 2009, we were there, ready to see what these Cambodian-inspired bánh mì doppelgangers were all about. Ed was a big fan of the name (it means "sandwich" in the Cambodian language Khmer). "Num pang rolls off the tongue so beautifully... Num num num num pang. I just love saying it."
Chef-owner Ratha Chaupoly , who was born in Cambodia and spent his early childhood there, had already introduced New York City to Cambodian flavors at his restaurant, Kampuchea; he and Ben Daitz then opened the first Num Pang. While it's ostensibly a Cambodian sandwich shop (really just Vietnamese bánh mì by another name), they make no pretensions of authenticity; but most of the stuff is so delicious, we don't really care.
So when we heard Num Pang's second location was opening in Midtown in June, we were excited to check it out. The new space is a bit more spacious than the cramped 12th Street quarters. There's more room to wait for your order (and my, what an order we had—three of the classic sandwiches, all of the Midtown-only specials and all of the seasonal specials... all the sides) inside at the standing room only counter.
At first glance, the menu is pretty identical to 12th Street's. You have the classics: pulled pork, catfish, veal meatballs, shrimp, steak and roasted cauliflower; the seasonal menu, and some Midtown exclusives, all three of which we ordered.
If you come in here expecting light rice flour baguettes or sandwiches that are equally proportioned between meat and crunchy, fresh vegetables like the best bánh mì, you'll be disappointed. Big, bold, and meat-focused, the Num Pang flavors may be Southeast Asian, but the spirit is unabashedly American. High quality meat is their focus, and they give you plenty of it.
Case in point: the Pulled Duroc Pork ($7.75). Served with a drizzle of not-so-spicy spicy honey. It's a massive pile of tender, moist pulled pork on a crisp and chewy mini baguette. The vegetables—thin planks of cucumber, shredded lightly pickled carrot, and cilantro sprigs—have a tough time holding their own against the large amount of flavorful meat, but the meat is great enough that we don't really mind.
Same goes for that Midtown-special, the Grilled Khmer Sausage ($7.25), which is locally produced by Brooklyn Bangers, or the Five-Spice Glazed Pork Belly ($7.75). They're aggressively seasoned, fatty, and very porky. Delicious on their own, great as a sandwich.
Ironically, our favorite sandwich had barely any meat at all; the Grilled Peaches ($7.50) with sautéed chives, bacon, and jalapeños was the most balanced in flavor, with a great mix of spicy, sweet, smoky, and tart elements—the kind of bright, popping flavors that Southeast Asian cuisine is really known for.
Grilled Spanish Mackerel ($7.75) paired slightly mushy fish with a bright Thai basil-infused oil. We'd have liked more grill flavor here, but for once the vegetables really shined through.
Similarly, we liked the Ginger Barbecue Brisket sandwich ($8), which was served with less meat than the pulled pork, along with a bright and tart pickled red cabbage slaw that buttressed the other vegetables with its fresh bite. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the pickled apples in the Roasted Chicken 'Chimi ($7.50) totally dominated everything else in the sandwich, despite the large chunks of chicken.
Of the other two vegetarian sandwiches on the menu, the Roasted Cauliflower ($6.75) with a baba ghanouj-like spread of eggplant was the more successful. The caramelized cauliflower nutty and assertive, but not so much as to overwhelm the other vegetables. The Roasted Salt & Pepper Japanese Yam ($7.25) had great flavor but suffered from lack of texture; we longed for some real crunch.
If you're really into coriander seed, you should consider the Grilled Skirt Steak. Repeat: if you're really into coriander seed. More than one taster here asked why their mouth tasted like soap after biting into the beef, which, despite its overly aggressive spicing, was well-cooked and very tender. Though it gets top billing on their menu, the steak was outshined by a few of its tastier cohorts.
Beyond sandwiches, Num Pang offers a number of side dishes, most not particularly memorable. Green Market Gazpacho is nicely seasoned with a basil-like aroma, but resembles watery salsa in texture. Our Market Pickle ($1.80) selection featured decidedly un-pickled, thick-cut watermelon rind floating in a sweet brine. Grilled Zucchini and Summer Squash ($6) came without a hint of grilled flavor, served nearly raw with whole scallions that were raw save for a token singe on their tips. Grilled Corn on the Cob ($2.50) served with lime juice, mayonnaise, and shredded coconut had the opposite problem: It was an interesting and potentially wildly successful take on Mexican elotes, but was marred by severe overcooking—our corn was evenly carbonized from end to end. (Perhaps we were just unlucky?)
We did like the Roasted Chicken Salad ($7.50), which had a generous amount of tender and juicy roasted chicken thigh served on top of a crunchy chopped salad of romaine, red peppers, and sprouts with a sweet fish sauce-based dressing.
The Tropical Fruit Salad ($4.50) is also great; chunks of young coconut, watermelon, mango, papaya, pineapple and lychee, tossed with a lemongrass and mint syrup, it's exactly the kind of refreshing, bright flavors we wished would be played up more in the sandwiches.
Watermelon Juice ($3.50) is delicious, really more of a sweet, mild watermelon purée. Green Jasmine Iced Tea ($2.25) is simple, grassy, unsweetened, and totally refreshing. We've had their Blood Orange Lemonade ($2.50) in the past and really enjoyed it. This time, however, it had gone off, with the distinct fermented funk of citrus juice that had seen better days.
If there's a criticism to be made about the sandwiches, it's that we wished some of their secondary ingredients had been a bit more assertive. More than once we found ourselves looking at the menu scratching our heads going "There's supposed to be pickled Asian pear in there?" And while you could fix that problem by, say, asking for less chili mayo or extra pickles and cucumbers in there, the restaurant has a strict (and vexing) "No Modifications" policy, even for allergies or dietary restrictions.
There's a lot to love about Num Pang. High quality ingredients, large meaty portions, interesting and fun flavor combos, and reasonable prices for the neighborhood. The trick is to get your head in the right place by realizing before you place your order what you are going to get: an American sandwich in Southeast Asian clothes.