Everyone loves banh mi, right? Just about everything tastes good on a crusty baguette with cucumbers, pickled veggies, mayonnaise, and plenty of cilantro and jalapenos. The concept is so good that we shouldn't have to stop at the variations offered at the banh mi joints scattered around the city.
That's just what a friend of mine does. We'll call him Eater X, since his job at a government organization in Chinatown requires that he remain anonymous. What Eater X does is this: he picks up a vegetarian banh mi from Banh Mi Saigon on Grand Street, orders a salt baked soft shell crab from Great NY Noodletown, and combines them to create a seasonal banh mi fit for a king.
Ever since I first heard of this scheme, I've been turning it over in my head, wanting to try it myself. When I noticed soft shell crabs starting to turn up in Chinatown's markets last month, I knew it was time. I called up Eater X and we met so he could show me his routine firsthand. It goes like this:
- Order a vegetarian banh mi ($3.50) from Banh Mi Saigon. Ask for the sandwich with just the vegetables, not the tofu and mushroom version or the much maligned mock vegan chicken. What you want is basically an all fixin's sandwich (#6b on the menu). An added bonus is the sliced tomato, which as far as I know only makes an appearance on this sandwich at Saigon and pairs beautifully with the crab.
- When you get the sandwich, call Great NY Noodletown and order a salt baked soft shell crab ($8.50) to go. It takes a little while for them to prepare it, so calling the order in is key, but not absolutely necessary. "Salt baked," of course, is one of the all-time great euphemisms for "deep fried." There's nothing baked about it.
- In the safety of a controlled environment, like your office kitchen, cut the soft shell crab in half across its belly and insert one half into each half of the sandwich. Maybe "insert" is too delicate a word. What you need to do is really cram that sucker in there. It won't fit perfectly; there will inevitably be claws and legs dangling outside the sandwich. Consider these dangly bits a bonus.
The resulting sandwich is delicious, tasting all the better for the steps it took to put it together. Soft shell crab is a treat no matter how you eat it, and its natural crunch adds another layer of contrast to the sandwich, which already is a study in warm-cool, salty-sweet, tangy-spicy flavors. The tomato becomes an unexpectedly key player, working with the mayonnaise, sriracha and crab to make this banh mi taste something like a Vietnamese po' boy. "It's sort of like a Reese's peanut butter cup in a way," X says of his brilliant sandwich hack. Two great tastes that taste great together, indeed.
What say you, readers? What would go in your dream banh mi?
Banh Mi Saigon
Great NY Noodletown
28 Bowery, New York NY 10013 (map) 212-349-0923