Photo by Kingfox/Flickr CC
As it should be, New York's allegiance to the crisp, porky, pickle-laden pleasures of the banh mi is huge--so any discussion of where to find the city's best Vietnamese sandwich inspires clannish warfare. I was reminded of this after reading Sam Sifton's praise of Baoguette in yesterday's New York Times, in which he cites the sandwich shop's "classic banh mi" as one of the 11 most memorable dishes he tasted in 2009. If Sifton is a banh mi Crip, I am a Blood.
More accurately, he is a banh mi Revolutionary to my Loyalist. The source of the feud between rival camps has been a major shift in the New York banh mi landscape. In recent months, Michael Huynh--who has created what is, after the Momofuku behemoth, New York's most famous mini-empire of Asian-themed restaurants--has opened not only a Vietnamese beer garden, a fashionable dessert bar, and a noodle shop, but also three locations of Sifton's beloved Baoguette, and three more are in the works. Whereas banh mi outposts have typically been dirt-cheap, mom-and-pop, hole-in-the-wall affairs native to Chinatown and certain parts of Queens, the Baoguette chain, with its more upscale East Village, West Village, and Murray Hill pedigrees, represents a first for New York: what Ed Levine of Serious Eats calls a "chef-driven banh mi shop."
But is a chef-driven banh mi a tasty, innovative treat, or an assault on everything a proper banh mi should stand for? Therein lies the crux of the Revolutionary/Loyalist schism.
To be sure, Sifton might also enjoy old-school banh mi. But he sees no problem with embracing the undeniable allure of Baoguette's "house-made" pâté, terrine, and trendy but untraditional pork belly--all piled onto a brand-name Tom Cat Bakery baguette, no less.
I prefer a generic roll. I have no desire to log on to Baoguette's home page to order my banh mi online. I recognize as heresy Michael Huynh's decision to market not only a pork variety but also such novelties as a catfish banh mi topped with honey mustard. My favorite Vietnamese sandwich is not the stuff of glossy-paged cookbooks and the Martha Stewart Show, which recently praised a whimsical curry beef offering Huynh has christened the "Sloppy Bao."
My favorite banh mi, in fact, is known merely as the "number one," or the "number one spicy" if topped with hot sauce. And you can find it in Chinatown at a takeout counter perched at the far end of a delightfully tacky jewelry store.
This is Banh Mi Saigon Bakery, at 138 Mott Street, a leading contender for best banh mi in New York and a champion of tradition. It has several sandwich offerings, plastic containers of noodles, and rice paper spring rolls, but in my ten or so visits over the past six months I've seen people order only the beloved number one, topped with a hearty barrage of pork that contrasts with its vibrant cilantro and heap of pickled carrots and daikon. The sandwich costs just under $4, compared with Baoguette's $5 (or $7 for Sloppy Bao or...it pains me...honey-mustard catfish).
Of course, Saigon Bakery is cash only, and you can't order online. But for the stalwart Loyalist, what are these obstacles if not part of the shop's boundless appeal? But don't take my word for it. Stroll past the carved jade bracelets in front, fish a few crumpled singles from your pocket, and clutch your paper-bagged prize as you exit and meander east on Grand Street past the fish markets, produce stands, and herbal medicine shops. Settle into a park bench overlooking the handball courts opposite the Grand Street subway station. Unwrap, and bite in. You'll be a Loyalist too.