Bánh Mì Saigon — Grand St, New york, NY

banhmisaigon2014

“If my own voice falters, tell them hubris was my way of adoring you.” – Lucie Brock-Borido, “Freedom of Speech”

Earlier this week I told someone that Bánh Mì Saigon probably wasn’t worth a trip. I gave this very serious consideration before I said it, but in the end I knew it was the right thing to say. Bánh Mì Saigon used to have the best sandwich in America, but that probably isn’t true anymore.

Probably. I want to revisit what I first said about Bánh Mì Saigon, what occurred to me when I realized sandwiches were something worth writing about:

 I have not eaten every sandwich in America, and I do not aspire to. The conclusion that this sandwich is the best was not reached by poll, not by formula, not by proclamation. It simply is. The #1 from Bánh Mì Saigon is not an appeal to reason, it is an argument for sandwiches as a religion.

I first ate that sandwich more than seven years ago, and in the intervening years I’ve eaten at more than 400 different establishments. Of those, only a single one even made me so much as consider that Bánh Mì Saigon might not have the best sandwich in America. In the end, it wasn’t a challenger that unseated Bánh Mì Saigon, but the simple failure of a lazy monarch.

I knew things were in trouble when Bánh Mì Saigon started making the Number 1 ahead of time, leaving them to grow stale and dry on the counter. I tried to hold on, learning that if you got there early enough you could find a fresh Number 1, and if you could manage that it was still the sandwich I knew it to be. That might still be true, but ultimately that is more condemnation than rescue. If it’s good at 10 in the morning and lousy at two in the afternoon, that just means someone isn’t trying. And as I have stressed on this blog, repeatedly and at some length, there is no greater sin against sandwiches than lack of effort.

saigon-steakThat is the Number 7 from Bánh Mì Saigon, bánh mì bò xào, which is to say steak. It’s very good; a bright lemongrass flavor to the beef is a particular highlight. But it’s not as good as the Number 1 used to be.

The person who asked me if Bánh Mì Saigon was worth the trip happens to live in a city where they have regular access to a quality bánh mì, and that influenced what I told them. Bánh Mì Saigon’s rating on Yelp is still a respectable four stars, and the last time I was there the people I spoke to had nothing but praise to offer. Crucially, though, those people had also never been to Bánh Mì Saigon seven years ago, or even five.

“It simply is.” That certainty stood up to more than 400 sandwiches, and it was thrown away in the name of expediency. I could offer all manner of qualifiers; get their early, order something other than the Number 1, how good it is depends on your frame of reference, on and on I could go. But I dislike these sorts of calculations, and they have no place in the the question of best. Bánh Mì Saigon isn’t that good anymore. They no longer have the best sandwich in America. I don’t know who does.

#1 – Bánh Mì Saigon, Grand St, New York, NY

The last time I was at Bánh Mì Saigon I was handed a sandwich that had been sitting on the counter for an undetermined amount of time. This is crime enough in and of itself, but it’s especially bad for the bánh mì, and it’s especially especially bad for the bánh mì from Bánh Mì Saigon. This is the sandwich linked at the top, the one that I claim to be the best sandwich in America. And on that day where I was handed one prepared well in advance, it was dry. The bread wasn’t crispy. The vegetables were limp. In short, it wasn’t the sandwich I’ve spent years praising to anyone who would listen. This was deeply, deeply unsettling.

It took me more than a year to get back to Bánh Mì Saigon. I entered the store that day extremely wary, and trying to prepare myself to come before you and offer an apology and a retraction. I would be completely lost in a world in which the No. 1 at Bánh Mì Saigon is not the best sandwich, but if that’s the world I live in then so be it.

It is not the world in which I live. The sandwich I was handed a few weeks ago was warm, the meat tender, the vegetables bright and fresh, the whole thing balanced and flawless. It was everything I could ever hope the sandwich to be, everything I remember. It was perfect.

There is, tragically, a catch. I was there at 10 in the morning, just two hours after they opened. I waited a minute after ordering as my sandwich was prepared fresh, but along the back counter I could see stacks and stacks of baguettes halfway through an assembly-line process. That would be one thing if the place were packed, but at that hour it was limited to myself and two other people. These were sandwiches that were going to sit for a while. How long, no one can say. If you snuck in just before closing you might get a sandwich that was more than eight hours old. That sandwich may or may not be tasty, but it is not the sandwich that I urge associates far and wide to seek out.

The last time I was preaching the virtues of this sandwich to an associate, I tacked on a bit of advice. “Get there early,” I said, without bothering to include an explanation of why. That may have been a mistake on my part, but it breaks my heart to have to offer a conditional endorsement at all. I’ve sent a good number of people to try this sandwich, and every time I’m afraid they will try it and think I have oversold it. “That’s it?” is my biggest concern. It has not yet happened. Yet.

I wish I had a more conclusive answer for you. I can’t rightly say that the sandwich linked at the top of this and every page is no longer the best sandwich. That isn’t true. It’s just a little harder to find. I hate that this is where I leave you, with me left mealy-mouthed and bereft of certainty, assuring you that it really is the best but you should probably show up on Tuesday, bring an umbrella, try to approach the counter at an angle of 40 to 45 degrees, and say a Hail Mary (but not an Our Father) as you walk in the door. But hating where I stand does not move me.

Get there early.

Porchetta Sandwich – Porchetta, E 7th St, New York, NY

Porchétta [por’ketta] n. roasted pork with crispy skin, highly seasoned with aromatic herbs and spices, garlic, sage, rosemary and wild fennel pollen. Typical plate of the Roman cuisine. Slow cooked Italian fast food.

I admire anyone willing to offer nothing but meat and bread. There are plenty of situations where I would decry such a thing, where the meat clearly can’t carry things, but when you have enough faith in what you’ve roasted that you serve it plain, I’ll gladly line up to try it. I feel like I could list a dozen things that would go well with the porchétta, but that isn’t what’s on offer here. What’s on offer is just meat and bread, and that’s no small risk.

It works. It’s a delicious sandwich. The herbs are front and center, the pork is tender and juicy, the bread is soaking up every bit of juice the meat lets loose, and the crust on the bread is enough that despite a total lack of supporting ingredients, the sandwich feels substantial. It’s not perfect; I felt the skin wasn’t so much crispy as just hard, and there were a few places where I might have thought I was chewing on a small bone. They can be dealt with, though, and everything around them is wonderful. I would say that I’d like to see one ingredient sandwiches more often, but the establishments capable of succeeding with such a sandwich are sparse. Let them instead rest as rare islands, surrounded by a sea smart enough to realize all it has to offer is water.

Fontina & Grilled Eggplant – Bread Nolita, Spring St, New York, NY

Bread Nolita is another place with quite a reputation, although not quite on the level of City Sandwich. But while City Sandwich lived up to the hype, Bread Nolita was no small disappointment. I went with my standard procedure of ordering the first thing listed on the menu, as explained in more detail here. In this case, that got me a sandwich of Fontina cheese with grilled zucchini and eggplant, arugula and sun-dried tomatoes with balsamic vinaigrette on a baguette. That’s not a bad lineup, and indeed could be quite promising, but the flavors were out of proportion. Eggplant and zucchini are delicate flavors, and they were overwhelmed by the cheese. It’s tough to tell from the photo, but this really came of as more of a grilled cheese sandwich, when it really needed to be a grilled veggie sandwich with cheese. The Baguette had a very hard crust, as quality baguettes do, but in this application that just meant a lot of squeezing. That wasn’t so kind to the eggplant, slippery as it is.

So here again we find a sandwich that could have been spectacular, but wasn’t. The balance and harmony involved in a great sandwich is a fragile thing, and it’s genuinely difficult to achieve. I wanted to like this sandwich, I really did. But should you be put in charge of a Philharmonic, you should hardly expect applause if the best you can muster is a meager scale.

The Baczynski – Veselka, 2nd Ave, New York, NY

The Baczynski is Polish ham, Ukranian salami, and Podlaski cheese. So that’s two points for Poland and one for the Ukraine, if you’re keeping score. It also comes with a pickled vegetable relish, which as you may note is not pictured above. That’s because it came in a little metal condiment ramekin, tucked off to the side. I don’t care for that kind of presentation in general, because I ordered a sandwich and not a hobby kit. If the establishment things the relish makes it a better sandwich, include it. If not, don’t. Simple. I don’t mean to drone on with complaints, but there wasn’t quite enough of it either, as it all had to fit in a little one ounce container.

What makes all of the above so terrible is that once I did the legwork of including the relish, this was actually a pretty tasty sandwich. The relish was heavy on the cauliflower, not something found in most relishes, and it put just the right twist on what would otherwise be more-or-less a ham and cheese sandwich. But between trying to spread it around myself and finding it too thing when I did so, this sandwich can’t be said to be more but an unrealized success, and I don’t know if there’s a worse kind.

Roasted Beets – Sullivan St Bakery, W 47th St, New York, NY

Sullivan Street Bakery puts out a number of sandwiches around midday, and all of them follow a basic sort of bit-of-this, bit-of-that style. Nothing piled high, just a few things that go well together on a really good bit of bread. In this case it was roasted golden beets, goat cheese, marinated onions and arugula. All of those go quite well together, with the sweetness of the beets playing off the tangy goat cheese. That said, it was the bread that was the standout here. It had a deep, complex flavor and a chewy crust that lent itself to savoring. It would be easy for a bakery to rest on its laurels when it’s putting out really good bread, to just load a sandwich up with some cold cuts and yellow mustard and say that was good enough. But sandwiches are more than bread, even when the bread is stellar, and thankfully the folk at Sullivan Street Bakery understand that.

Nuno – City Sandwich, 9th Ave, New York, NY

 

I always feel a bit of guilt when eating at an establishment with a fair amount of hype, and I suspect I’m not alone in that. Shouldn’t I been down some dingy alley, finding the place no one else has heard of? Wouldn’t their sandwich be better than this one? That’s probably nonsense, but the human heart is not quite so straightforward as a fine sandwich. City Sandwich is just the kind of establishment with a grand reputation, and what’s more the Nuno is a particularly praised sandwich. So I was compounding my own sin, if it can be called that, but I’m not going to apologize for even a second, because this is an amazing sandwich.

The Nuno is Portuguese morcela (blood sausage), broccoli rabe, tomato, collard greens and mozzarella with garlic and olive oil. It’s a timeless archetype—meat, greens, tomato, cheese—and it’s timeless for a good reason. The blood sausage and the broccoli rabe is the winning move here, with the sausage bringing a rich, complex flavor and the greens a bright, earthy undertone. The cheese is melted and stringy, mozzarella a fine choice to not overpower the rest of the sandwich, and the bread is crispy with a tender, yielding crumb. While finding an unheralded gem of an establishment or a sandwich is undoubtedly a thrill, you owe it to yourself to just can it and get in line with everyone else. City Sandwich is one of those times; make your way past the growing mass of newspaper clippings and printed blog posts at the door and have a sandwich. You won’t regret it.

de Verdekke – Wafels & Dinges, 65th & Columbus, New York, NY

Wafels & Dinges is a chain of carts in New York City, ostensibly putting fourth an authentic Belgian waffle experience. I can’t speak to that, having never been to Belgium, but I can say what they put out is delicious. Warm waffles with a subtle sweetness topped with more directly sweet items, it’s a fine evening snack. Even finer is a treat that comes in the form of a sandwich, as you see above.

I don’t think I’ve got more to say about this than that it was delicious, but I should say that several times, and at a less-than-reasonable volume. This was outstanding, with warm crispy waffles and rich, creamy ice cream. This sort of thing is exactly why we eat sandwiches, isn’t it? It need not be fancy, just take the right things, put them together, and you move from good to great.

General Sandwich Discussion: The Pat LaFrieda Steak Sandwich At Citi Field


New York City celebrity butcher Pat LaFrieda has taken his talents to Citi Field. Last night the meat master debuted a filet mignon steak sandwich stand at a game between the New York Mets and Miami Marlins. The sandwich features hand-cut 100% black angus seared filet mignon, Monterey jack cheese, sweet caramelized onions, and is served with a secret au jus on a custom-made and toasted French baguette.

Food Republic

I want to talk about something from the mission statement. Specifically, I want to talk about the first sentence: I believe sandwiches do not get what they deserve. Sadly, that remains as true today as it was when I wrote it. The above sandwich is a Big Deal. It comes from a famous chef, it sells for $15, the au jus is a secret, and it’s stuffed with filet mignon. Now, I haven’t eaten this sandwich. I don’t know when I’ll next get to Citi Field, so I’m not sure I’ll ever eat it. But I’ll tell you this: I bet this sandwich doesn’t rate much higher than “not bad.”

Pat LaFrieda probably loves sandwiches. I have no reason to doubt that. But in the mission statement I didn’t say that sandwiches don’t get the love they deserve, I said they don’t get the respect and study the deserve. Mr. LaFrieda may love sandwiches, but he does not respect them. I am hesitant to cast aspersions on another sandwich enthusiast, but based on the above sandwich that conclusion is inescapable. This sandwich is a conceptual failure, it is the ugly product of a severe misunderstanding, and it is most assuredly not the work of someone who understands sandwiches.

This is a cheesesteak sandwich. It’s steak, cheese, onions, on bread. Separate from the steak sandwich, the cheesesteak is its own category. It has its own reason for being, and that reason doesn’t really take into account filet mignon. The idea behind a cheesesteak sandwich is that you can cover for using dry, low qualify beef by covering it in cheese. The beef you’re using is going to lack moisture and it’s going to lack richness, so you pile some cheese on top to compensate. The two things work together, and you have a successful sandwich. That’s how sandwiches work. If you’re making a sandwich with something as nice as filet mignon, you don’t need the cheese. Now maybe, maybe there’s a play to be made here in terms of turning one thing up (rich, moist steak) and another down (dry, aged cheese.) But that’s not what’s going on here. Pat LaFrieda, for reasons that surely escape me, figured the best play here was Monterey jack.

A well respected associate and I were discussing this sandwich, and I think he covered the issue with the cheese quite well:

“Grocery-store cheese (in other words, that which you find hanging on the wall), I think, is for fixing something. It has a noble purpose, yes, but that purpose is a band-aid. It’s what you keep around when you take your burgers off the grill and realize they’re too dry. But if your meal is already good … I mean, it’s like someone wheeling in Anchorman on a TV cart into the movie theater when you’re trying to watch goddamn Raging Bull. It’s distracting, and the entire experience is reduced to what you just added.

According to the article, it’s a three-inning wait to get your hands on this sandwich. Three innings, $15, and your entire experience is reduced to Monterey jack cheese. I don’t know what kind of world in which that kind of thing happens, but it isn’t a world where sandwiches get what they deserve.

French Bull – Bagel Maven, 7th Ave, New York, NY

I’m always given a bit of pause when going for a sandwich at an establishment named for some other food. Plenty of such establishments offer fine sandwiches, but it’s always cause for the tiniest bit of suspicion. I should have trusted my instincts. The French Bull at Bagel Maven is roast beef, brie and watercress on ciabatta bread. Mayonnaise and horseradish round things out. That’s well and good in concept, but in execution there was much too much cheese. Believe it or not, what you see above is merely half of what was intended for the sandwich, and I actually broke with my own policy and offered instruction to the man assembling things. Watching it being made, I saw the pictured amount of cheese added and then saw the sandwich maker reach for anther handful. I found myself unable to hold my tongue. “That’s enough cheese,” I called, and the woman behind me wondered aloud just how much he had intended to add. That will forever remain a mystery, but I do know that so long as I was shouting instructions I should have called for some subtraction. The beef and the cheese are there in almost equal parts, which is hopelessly out of balance. The horseradish was completely lost, something that happens a lot more frequently than I would prefer. In more fitting proportions I think this would have been a fine sandwich, but as I received it it was no good. Balance is delicate, tremendously delicate, and it’s all too easy for one element to derail a sandwich. Any serious sandwich enthusiast knows this, which makes it all the more a shame that so many establishments seem so set on reminding us.