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

Yesterday’s sandwich, the #1 at Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli, left me unsettled. My understanding of the sandwich world had not been overturned, but it had certainly been jostled. Immediately after finishing at Saigon Vietnamese, I walked the 500 feet to Bánh Mì Saigon. All that had been jostled, I thought, would soon be set still. All questions would be answered, all doubts banished. Bánh Mì Saigon was packed. It was getting late in the afternoon, and I took such a crowd as a bit of confirmation, an unspoken collusion between me and all of these other people who knew good sandwiches from great sandwiches from very good, and greatest from great. There was a healthy line, and a small crowd who had already ordered stood waiting for their sandwiches. I spent a few minutes in line, then stepped to the counter and made my order. As I reached for my wallet I was shocked to see my order ready to be taken away. I glanced behind me at the assembled crowd, and questioned whether this was really my sandwich. I was assured it was, money was exchanged, and I went on my way. The picture you see above is the glamour shot, from previous visits. As I held the sandwich that day:

The photo may not reveal what I need to mention, so I will cut to the quick: I have never had such a delicious, yet heartbreaking sandwich. I don’t know how long my sandwich had been sitting there before it was handed off to me, but it was too long. I have little doubt there are portions of the day where Bánh Mì Saigon does enough business to hand off #1s as soon as they’re bagged, but getting towards four in the afternoon on a Friday is apparently not one of those times. The pork, the thing about which I frequently daydream, the thing I had most looked forward to, could only be described as tough. It was dry. The caramelization I so treasure went too far. The rest of the sandwich had no hope of picking up the slack; having sat for an indeterminate amount of time, the baguette lacked any warmth and had lost some crunch. These are errors of execution, that they can be so easily avoided is what makes them so tragic. Indeed, from past experiences I am certain that Bánh Mì Saigon is capable of avoiding them. That they failed to do so is an almost unspeakable disappointment. It was still very good, but it was nowhere close to what it could be. In fact, it was not as good as the sandwich I’d just had at Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli.

Is this the final hailstone that caves in the roof I spent yesterday propping up? I don’t think so, in a large part because were I to say that this is no longer the best sandwich it will not be because some other sandwich surpassed it but because it regressed. Rather than being bested, it can only fail to meet its own challenge. On this particular day, it did fail to do that. I don’t know what the future holds. It’s possible Bánh Mì Saigon had a bad day. It’s possible they’ve grown lazy, content to coast on their reputation. It’s possible they lost something in their transition to a new space, or something as simple as a change in cooks has lead them astray. But the question I attempt to answer is not “What is usually the best sandwich,” or “what could be the best sandwich?” It’s “What is the best sandwich?” That’s not a question I have an answer to right now. Here at the end of On Sandwiches’ Month of Bánh Mìs, I regretfully offer you  no conclusion. This is a serious issue, and I do not want to make mistakes in haste. I will be hesitant to change what I consider to be the best sandwich, but I will not be unwilling. I am not sure when I will be able to revisit this issue, but when I do I will share what I find with you. That I have not settled this question does not mean it cannot be settled. Certainty awaits, and I look forward to obtaining it.

#1 House Special – Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich, Broome St, New York, NY

Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli is a little more than 500 feet from my beloved Bánh Mì Saigon, literally around the corner. As I mentioned in the review of Paris Sandwich, I wanted to see what the neighborhood had to offer. My first sample of Chinatown’s other offerings left me underwhelmed, but Saigon Vietnamese was another story. To start with, this was a big sandwich. Most bánh mìs are six to eight inches, this one had to be at least ten and a good bit taller than most. Relatively speaking, it was a monster. That said, it wasn’t the size that got me thinking.

The #1 House Special at Saigon Vietnamese contains, in addition to the standard vegetables, nem nướng, thịt nguội, and chả lụa. This left me a bit confused, because there’s something a bit off in either the translation here or my understanding of bánh mì fillings. The thịt nguội and chả lụa were what I expected, cold-cut or cold-cut-esque meats previously discussed here and here, respectively. But I understood nem nướng to be pork patties, like I had at Bánh Mì Zớn. Here, though, they were minced. Not just in practice, but described as such on the menu. (The menu, to return briefly to a point made in the Bánh Mì Zớn review, is a series of 8.5×11″ pieces of paper taped above the counter.) Minced and grilled, the pork in this sandwich was much more reminiscent of thịt nướng, as found in my treasured #1 at Bánh Mì Saigon. It had a similarly chewy texture, and very similar sweet, salty, savory flavor. The primary contrast between the two sandwiches is that the pork at Bánh Mì Saigon has a heavier caramelization, and the pork at Saigon Vietnamese is more loose, more moist. Beyond description lies judgement, and I have to tell you that this was a very, very good sandwich. Crisp, tender bread, fresh, bright vegetables, and flavorful, tender meat. Making my way through the sandwich, I was struck with a thought: What if someone likes this better than Bánh Mì Saigon?

A number of associates, after hearing me sing its virtues, have gone to try Bánh Mì Saigon. To my knowledge, none of them have come away disappointed. I always fear that they will, though, because of the particular song I sing, so to speak. From the Finest Sandwich post:

This is a bánh mì from Bánh Mì Saigon, and it is the best sandwich in America. Now, 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.

There isn’t much room to walk that praise back. I’m OK with that, I wrote the above because I believed it, because I meant it, because that sandwich showed me something no other sandwich had before or has since. This “what if someone else…” isn’t some act of cognitive dissonance attempting to distance myself from a realization that I might be wrong. My thinking was that Bánh Mì Saigon was better, but if someone valued different things (a moist softness over the celebration of the Maillard reaction that is the #1 at Bánh Mì Saigon, for example) they might feel differently. And that conclusion, that it was possible that the #1 at Bánh Mì Saigon isn’t the best sandwich in the world, was deeply unsettling.

It isn’t just that I would have to come before you and offer a mea culpa, or that my entire sense of what a sandwich can be would be thrown off. Both of those things would be true, but it’s more than that. Why that conclusion was unsettling isn’t about me, or even about the sandwiches. It’s about fault lines in the ground upon which we lay the bricks of certainty. How do I know the #1 at Bánh Mì Saigon is the best? I can’t explain it, it’s just something I knew when I ate the sandwich. I was made privy to a clarity, and what the sandwich at Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli suggested was not that that picture had shifted, but that perhaps my eyes did not work as well as I thought they did.
Given that I can rely only on myself, my impressions and my understandings, to share the things I love with you, that notion is uncomfortable. Consider the tapestry that is the idea of “Best.” How difficult it is to see which thread is quality, which thread is context, which is luck? Is there novelty in the weave? Bias? This problem exists across criticism, and it prompts some to scurry in retreat, designating only a “favorite,” informing anyone who asks that they must make their own decisions. I would consider that an option of last resort, and it’s not one I will avail myself of today. No. Today I will tell you that this is the second best bánh mì I’ve ever had, that it is slightly too moist, and too tender. It is an exceedingly good sandwich, really, genuinely, very very good. But it was not as good as what I’ve had from Bánh Mì Saigon.

Grilled Pork – Paris Sandwich, Mott St, New York, NY

Paris Sandwich is around the corner from my beloved Bánh Mì Saigon, and was my first stop in the neighborhood. I hold the sandwiches at Bánh Mì Saigon in high regard, of course, and I was very curious to see what kind of sandwich shops made it their business to stand in direct competition to what I see as the finest possible sandwich. I wondered how they might attempt to set themselves apart, in what ways they might try to gain a leg up. One thing Paris Sandwich does is serve a lot more food. Where Bánh Mì Saigon serves sandwiches, spring rolls and a few dishes with noodles, Paris Sandwich has all that and more, with rice dishes, Vietnamese waffles, curries, all manner of things. One thing in particular that jumped out at me was, beside the listing of Vietnamese sandwiches (labeled as such), there was list of “Euro-Asian Sandwiches,” which contrasted the standard Vietnamese mayo, pickled carrot and daikon with American mayo, lettuce/tomato/onion and cheese. Lee’s offers American style sandwiches as well, but they seem to understand them as separate sandwiches, constructed in their own right sometimes on a baguette, but other times on a croissant. Paris Sandwich seemed to posit bánh mìs and these Euro-Asian Sandwiches as direct cousins. I tried to conceive of any of the fillings I’ve had on a bánh mì pairing with lettuce/tomato/onion and a slice of cheese, and the resulting mental picture was not a pretty one. Perhaps someday in the future I’ll give one a go, just to find out if it’s as off-putting as it seems to be, but it can certainly wait.

As for the sandwich I did have, Paris Sandwich proved no match for my favorite. The baguette was nice and crispy, but the pork had a strong teriyaki taste to it, a flavor I’d never before encountered in a bánh mì. The veggie mix was a bit out of proportion, leaving carrots overpowering everything else. This was a much better sandwich than I found at Sing Sing, but the conclusions remains the same; with better options just down the block, there’s no real reason to stop here.

Classic Vietnamese Sandwich – Vicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches, E 2nd St, New York, NY

Vicky’s conception of classic is roast ground pork, Vietnamese ham, and pâté. That’s not what what I know as classic; perhaps it’s a regional thing. Regardless of whether it is or it isn’t, this sandwich won’t be ranking as a classic with me. As has become a refrain this month, it wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great. The roast pork was a texture I hadn’t come across in a bánh mì before, and I didn’t care for it. In contrast to Lee’s mushy meatball, it was a mealy rough texture. Both sandwiches miss the mark of contrasting crust and tender inside that one finds in a meatball or meatloaf, and these two strikes are enough to get me to steer clear of this sort of thing in the future. Meat in most bánh mìs is shredded, chopped or sliced, and it seems to me that ground isn’t an option that needs including. On the upside the ham had a nice bright flavor, the mayo was buttery, and the sandwich had a nice peppery flavor overall. It was also served piping hot, the hottest I’d ever had. A good bánh mì is warm, and this one didn’t lose anything by being warmer than the average. The more sandwiches one eats the more divergent one’s experiences will be, and as my list of shops gets longer, some places will have to find a place at the bottom. As it so happens, Vicky’s is one of those places.

Banh Mi Thit Kho – Cô Ba, 9th Ave, New York, NY

The pork belly bánh mì at Cô Ba sells for $8, which made it the most expensive bánh mì I’d ever seen. In truth were I only pursuing sandwiches for my personal pleasure I’d scoff at such a thing and head over to Chinatown, where a sandwich almost certainly just as good can be had for nearly half the price. But I am in this not just for myself but for a community of enthusiasts, so I swallowed my objections and ordered the sandwich. Besides, perhaps it would be the best bánh mì I’d ever had, a sandwich that would change my life. In that case it might very well be worth the $8! Well, cutting to the chase, it wasn’t worth it. Were I not so accustomed to paying between $4 and $5 for a sandwich I might have no objection at all, but I am and so I do. It was a good sandwich, but no $8.

I would like to make clear, though, it was a good sandwich. Most everything was in the “pretty good” range, better than acceptable but not so good as to be great. The meat was the real highlight, a rich, fatty bit of pork belly. It’s a shame that the jalapeños you see pictured there are the only ones involved. Jalapeños fit better on this bánh mì than any I’ve ever had, the heat cutting the fat nicely. There was a lot more cilantro than average as well, but the pork belly stood up to that just as well as it did the chilies. In the end, it might not be fair to define a sandwich entirely by its price, but nothing exists in a vacuum. Pork belly isn’t something usually offered on a bánh mì, but all sandwiches exist in a larger context and when a short walk will net you a few bucks saved and a better sandwich, it’s hard to get too excited, pork belly or no.

Grilled Pork Patties – Bánh Mì Zớn, E 6th St, New York, NY

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.

The Italian – Sal, Kris & Charlie’s Deli, 23rd Ave, Astoria, NY

Sal, Kris & Charlie’s Deli is a sandwich institution on the west side of Queens. This is their Italian, one of two staples on offer. The body is salami, mortadella, pepperoni and provolone, with lettuce and tomato capping things off. As with any good Italian, there are hots if you want them. They also offers something they call “The Bomb,” which is substantially bigger and adds ham, turkey, and two more kinds of cheese. The Italian is more restrained and is a better sandwich for it.  It’s quality meat and they don’t skimp, piling it high on a locally baked semolina roll that is, without question, the best hero roll I’ve ever had. It has a wonderfully crunchy crust, a strong, chewy body and brings another layer of flavor to the sandwich.

That said, I don’t like this sandwich. I don’t like this sandwich, but I think you should try it. Let me explain. It’s no secret that I don’t particularly care for cold cuts, but I’d like to think that I’ve shown that I’m willing to be fair. Being fair doesn’t obligate me to like something, though, and I think I can be fair to this sandwich without liking it. This sandwich is the platonic ideal of the grinder. Quality meat, plenty of it, and a great roll. This is everything a hero can be, and if you were called upon to defend the whole idea you could do no better than to cite this sandwich. But it just isn’t for me, and I’m happy to admit that’s about me and not the sandwich. I’ll further admit that I’ve made this site a bit personality heavy. Perhaps that makes this the best time to remind you that I’m not the ultimate authority on the sandwiches you eat, you are. I have my opinions and philosophies and I hold to them, but ultimately I can only experience sandwiches for me, and you only for you. So it may seem a bit contradictory to say that I wouldn’t eat this sandwich again but you should, but that’s what I’m going with. Should I find myself back in Astoria with an associate I’ll gladly guide them to Sal Kris & Charlie’s and enjoy a slice of coffee cake while they settle the issue for themselves. I recommend that one day you do the same.

The United Nation – Green Leaf Deli, Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY

There are some really good corner delis in New York City, but they can’t all be good. The law of averages, in fact, would have it that there are just as many that are lousy as are good. And if you’re in an unfamiliar neighborhood, finding a good deli can be a bit of a crapshoot. There are frequently many to choose from and they all seem to serve largely the same thing. You can go by price, by looks, by how popular they seem to be, or just choose at random. You put your faith in fate, get your sandwich and go on your way.

And so it was that I found myself on the upper west side on a bright sunny mid-morning, looking for a sandwich. The Green Leaf Deli seemed as good an option as any, and I admit to being charmed not by the kitschy names for the sandwiches, but by the grammatical tweaks. The United State. The Union Square Best. The United Nation. Singular/plural can throw even the best of us for a loop some time, and I hold no error in language against a good sandwich. Unfortunately, The United Nation was not a good sandwich. Dry, tough prosciutto accompanied dry, waxy mozzarella cheese. Peppers, onions, lettuce and tomato were all present but woefully inadequate and the promised oil & vinegar had barely any taste at all. This was the first sandwich I ate on a day where I figured to eat a good number of sandwiches, and midway through I looked down and couldn’t think of a single reason to finish it. Wasting food is a sin, and wasting a sandwich is likely cardinal. But this sandwich was just no good, and no amount of piety can save a bad sandwich.

Filet-O-Fish – No. 7 Sub, Broadway, New York, NY

I was excited to try No. 7 Subs. I’d heard them spoken of fondly by other bloggers I respect, but it was more than that. One person described them as “avant-garde,” and it was with this in mind that I looked forward to sampling their wares. I’ve got a quick way to describe the sandwich I had, and it isn’t “avante-garde.” It’s “lousy.” The above photo quickly gives away the main issue: Where’s the filet? This is a $9 sandwich. I get that it’s Manhattan. I’m no country rube, eyeballs shooting out of my head when confronted with big city prices. I’ll pony up for any sandwich, even almost ridiculous amounts. $9 isn’t going to bankrupt me, but when I part with it I expect something more substantial than an undersized filet hiding in the middle of a bread brick. (I should note that the above picture only depicts half of the sandwich I was given.) That only thing you can really see in the photo is bread and cheese is fitting, because that’s about all the sandwich was. There was cilantro in there, and a roasted tomatillo-chili mayo, but neither made themselves known. All I got was a dense roll and too much American cheese, much to my disappointment.

I should have known what I was in for as soon as I set foot in the door. The menu features a pulled pork sandwich, and that pulled pork sandwich features feta cheese. Cheese on pulled pork has come up here before and…an associate once remarked that “No one who puts cheese on a pulled pork sandwich has ever, or will ever, be loved.” That’s a nice summation of my thoughts on the matter. The associate I was dining with at No. 7 Subs had the asparagus sandwich and was kind enough to let me sample it. Her fortunes were no better than mine, as overcooked asparagus sunk a nice granny smith/cashew dressing. “Avante-garde” is probably a fair way to describe the sandwich shop, but they’re aiming high without securing the basics. They’re trying to paint a masterpiece with a rumpled paper bag and a dried out set of watercolors, and it’s a sad sight. This isn’t falling short via trying something that didn’t work. It’s falling short via not trying, and I can’t get behind that.

No. 7 Subs does brisk business, so it’s possible I simply caught them on a bad day. I would be doing my wonderful readers a disservice, though, if I gave them the benefit of the doubt. If you’re searching out a good sandwich in Manhattan I’m sure you’ll have someone telling you how good No. 7 Subs is. I suppose you might have your reasons for taking their word over mine, but if you’re putting stock in the word of your humble sandwich enthusiast, that word is “avoid.”

Eggs & Bacon on a Bialy – Top Grill & Deli, Bayside, NY

2 eggs and bacon on a bialy

Some time ago I featured the humble two eggs & bacon on a roll, the standard of New York breakfast sandwiches. In that review I mentioned that there was something distinctly New York about that sandwich to me, in that hackneyed oh-they-don’t-make-it-properly-here-not-like-at-home sort of way. Well, my friends, I’m going to return to that shameful stance again, because two eggs & bacon on a bialy feels even more distinctly New York than the standard roll. Cousin to the bagel, a bialy skips the boiling and goes straight to the baking, and simple has a dip where the bagel has a hole. Fill the dip with diced onion, garlic and poppy seeds and you have a wonderful base for a sandwich. They’re not solely confined to New York, but it seems like finding them elsewhere is like something of a snipe hunt, a quest from bagel store to bakery that has thus far been fruitless for yours truly. But, I suppose, that makes the times I find myself in the right territory all the more worthwhile. That’s how it was with this sandwich, a delicious, salty, chewy, and perfect way to start the day.