"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Banh Mi Saigon - October 6, 2010

My most frequent dining companion has an inherent mistrust toward renovation; his theory is that the dirtier and dingier the place is, the better the food.  While this theory has so many holes, it seems to contain a grain of truth when it comes to restaurants in Chinatown; as a matter of fact, I should use "places" instead of "restaurants" as the word, "restaurant," would be, more often than not, an overstatement for many establishments. This little Vietnamese sandwich shop used to be exactly such a hole-in-the-wall, or more correctly, back-of-a-jewelry-store, place in Chinatown where I had passed by numerous times without a thought more than "They neglected to change the awning" because a store with a display window dangling with strands of real and fake beads could not possibly be named "Saigon Bread (often bakeries in Chinese are called "xxx Bread")" in Chinese or English (nothing lost in translation).
One day, I had finally come to notice there were an unusual amount of comings and goings in that jewelry store; unless there was a boom in amber beads industry, something fishy was going on.  Hence, I walked up the few flights of steps, which had deterred my curiosity as one who was never keen on unwarranted physical exertion, and peeked inside. At last, the mystery was revealed to me, and I became one of the initiated:  There was a sandwich shop inside, and a Vietnamese sandwich shop at that.  My No.1, thick, fat baguette filled with succulent, chewy and salty roast pork, clean sweet and sour pickled radish and carrot, fragrant cilantro, hot jalapeño peppers, crisp cucumbers and decadently spread with mayonnaise, it was one of the two best sandwiches I had ever had - in the "cooked" sandwich department.* (The other best cooked sandwich? Salmon with eggs and cress at Pret a Manger in London - a one-time receipe, apparently as it is no longer available.  Allow me to stress - Not the Pret a Manger in New York; there is a world of difference between the two.)  There is something uniquely satisfying about a sandwich, that is not available to other food; perhaps it is an effect produced by the capacity to contain all the ingredients in one bite. With their banh mi, your mouth was just filled with such a complex perfection, you just wanted to devour the whole right there on the bench in the jewelry store; or if half of it happened to be left, you could grill it and enjoy the extra crunch at home to balance out the now time-mellowed fillings. Such was the good old days...

*By "cooked," I mean a sandwich which involves a bit more cooking skill rather than relying purely on the power of ingredients, such as casse-croûte jambon et fromage. 

Now, back to the present.  With the unavoidable passage of time, what has changed? First, the bread:  It was no longer thick and fat, but instead, longer and thinner and lighter.  The lightness significantly reduced the level of satisfaction when you bite into it:  It is probably partially proportional to how big you need to open your mouth and how much muscles you need to move to chew.  (I really need to sit down and think about the secrets of a sandwich.)  I kept eating and, at the same time, was vaguely dissatisfied as if someone was slipping one over and I was too dumb to catch it. Chewing and frowning, it finally hit me:  "Where is the mayonnaise?"  Had they simply forgotten it, or had it been totally eliminated from the recipe?  It is hard to imagine the latter as it would have been a sacrilege. However, forgetting mayonnaise is a cardinal sin in itself.  What else?  I seem to remember there used to be ham in the No.1 back in the jewelry-store days; besides, it is one of the basic ingredients that all versions of Vietnamese sandwiches seem to agree on within and without Vietnam.  But now, the ham somehow does not taste like ham - another count of offense in the crime of a failed Vietnamese sandwich.

Which is worse? To never be able to get what you want, or to find what you have treasured turning into trash?  I am much saddened when I ponder this question.

Banh Mi Saigon

Address:  198 Grand St. (between Mulberry St. & Mott St.), New York, NY 10013
Phone:  (212) 941-1541

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