The Great New York Banh Mi Hackathon

[Photographs: Eunice Choi, unless otherwise noted]

Think about what makes a proper banh mi: good bread, made crisp and light by rice flour; crisp fresh and pickled vegetables; quality cold cuts and pâté, right?

That's one proper banh mi: the banh mi dac biet, and it's a fine thing we've devoted some effort to. But it's not the only banh mi, either here or in Vietnam.

The banh mi is, after all, the product of colonial influences on Vietnamese cuisine, and is a whole class of sandwiches with fillings that include grilled meat, meatballs, tofu, fish, vegetables, eggs...the list goes on. And if they don't limit themselves to just one banh mi in Saigon, I see no reason for us to do the same.

In the past we've hacked together our own banh mi, stuffing them with the likes of soft shell crab and local tofu. This is that process on a grander scale: a true New York banh mi mashup with fillings from fish balls to falafel to pastrami. The result: 19 banh mi our city can be proud of.

The Rules

Stuffing in Action

Our banh mi vessel for each sandwich was the "vegetarian" banh mi from Banh Mi Saigon in Chinatown, which costs $3 and consists of a full banh mi (mayo included) minus the meat, plus a slice of tomato. From there we hunted around Chinatown and a little farther afield for sandwich fillings that you could easily hack together for no more than $7 or $8 total.

Some were uniquely Chinese: fish balls, char siu roast pork, eggplant with garlic sauce. But there's room for growth in the New York banh mi, why is why we also tried Malaysian beef jerky, Chinese-American General Tso's (don't knock it until you've tried it), and halal cart gyro meat. A couple ideas were more aspirational than effective: a fried cruller or dumpling banh mi is tasty in that starch-on-starch way, but they were more than a little cumbersome.

A few banh mi break the $8 barrier, or are a farther walk from Chinatown, or both, but they do so with tasty results. A Taïm falafel banh mi is a fine thing indeed; Katz's pastrami and Russ & Daughters' whitefish salads are banh mi revelations. Other fillings only come in large, though cheap portions, like that pint of eggplant and garlic sauce. Take some friends and make a few banh mi to share, or package the leftovers for next time.

All the Banh Mashups

View The Great New York Banh Mi Hackathon in a larger map.

You can see all the banh mi in the slideshow, or jump to a specific one below: