There is a reason this sandwich is named in English. Bánh Mì Zòn is highly regarded by New York fans of the bánh mì, and when I was in town I was excited to see what the fuss was. Looking up the address, I was a little bit surprised to find that it was in the East Village. People have called Bánh Mì Zòn home to the best bánh mì in New York City (something with which I would obviously take issue.) Zòn was going to be only the second bánh mì shop I had been to that wasn’t located in a heavily ethnic area. Going in, I was skeptical. Arriving at the shop, my concerns only grew. The shop is new, with tables and stools in an unblemished, unfinished wood. It was…clean. Most bánh mì shops I’ve been to aren’t dirty, exactly. Cluttered might be a better word for it. There’s frequently racks or shelves piled with Vietnamese packaged foods, the signs are often handwritten or printed on 8.5×11″ paper. In general there’s a slipshod quality to them. Bánh Mì Zòn was having none of that, and that’s why the title of this post is in English. This was the first place I’d been to where English seemed to come first.
I don’t have a fetish for authenticity. I’m not going to claim that a good bánh mì can’t be found in non-ethnic neighborhoods. I’m not going to insist you need dust on top of the refrigerator case and an oven missing a dial to make a proper sandwich, and I’m not going to say that anyone who wasn’t enjoying one years ago can’t enjoy one next year. The whole thing just gave me cause to think. I found myself considering the future of the bánh mì. It’s a good sandwich, in the collective sense. That’s no secret, but you run across more people who haven’t had one than people who have, and it’s too good to stay that way. I’m going to bring this up again later this month, but the future of the bánh mì involves significantly more widespread availability. It involves evolution, offshoots and different takes. It involves franchises. I’ve been singing the virtues of the bánh mì to anyone who would listen for a while now, and I’ve been able to do that because I feel like I understand the sandwich. When I recommend that someone try one, I have a certain confidence in what they’re getting. The idea of a future where that isn’t true frightens me.
In a lot of ways this is no different than any other outgrowth of culture. We all come from somewhere, and our people all make something special. Eventually, if we want to share that thing with the world at large, we have to accept that it isn’t always going to be what it was when we first came to love it. I feel a bit ridiculous saying all of this. Obviously I have no personal grounds on which to contest the evolution of the bánh mì — I am only sharing what someone else was kind enough to share with me. But the idea that the thing that I love may someday be completely different is scary. And when I walk into a banh mi shop that looks nothing like virtually every other bánh mì shop I’ve ever been to, it’s hard not to let the mind wander to unsettling places.
After all of that, my fears remain in a hypothetical future. Bánh Mì Zòn makes a good sandwich, particularly a very good baguette. I don’t think it’s the best in New York City, but I’m not making a straight comparison. The #1 at Zòn is pate, terrine, ham and pork floss. I wanted a more A-to-A comparison, so I got the grilled pork patties, the closest thing to my beloved thịt nướng, frequently referred to as “grilled pork.” Even that turned out to be an unfair comparison, I think. I much prefer the marinated and caramelized bits in thịt nướng, but nem nướng is a different product. It was flavorful and moist, but as I ate it I kept looking at it and thinking of how much surface area had gone ungrilled, how much unfulfilled potential there was for chewy texture and deep flavor. But all in all it’s still a very good sandwich, if you can handle clean floors and new tables.