#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.

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#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.

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

We should start, then, with perfection.

This is a bánh mì from Saigon Bánh Mì, 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 Saigon Bánh Mì is not an appeal to reason, it is an argument for sandwiches as a religion.

The namesake sandwich at Saigon Bánh Mì is listed as #1 on the handwritten menu board, and if we’re being completely honest here it is similarly inscribed in my heart. The sandwich is not complicated, and it is the pursuit of perfection of a classic formula that seems to raise the sandwich above its competitors. A baguette grilled to a crunch holds seasoned, diced pork grilled to chewy perfection. Cilantro makes its distinct mark, shredded onion and carrot join cucumber to contrast the pork with a bit of fresh snap, and a slice of pork roll and a bit of mayo smooth things out, bringing it all together. It is everything a sandwich should be, it is flavorful and complete. Rather than merely holding things together, the bread accentuates the overall sandwich.

Saigon Bahn Mi is located in the back half of a jewelry store. After you order your sandwich you can stand there as the jewelry store employees stare at you, no doubt long tired of people who take up space but don’t buy any jade Buddha pendants. I have always felt it a little bit awkward, but before long you surrender your four dollars and leave holding the crowning achievement of the entire sandwich industry. This is the finest sandwich.