The New York food media are all agog over banh mi at the moment, and, while some have argued that the trend is already over, new spots devoted to both classic and reworked versions of the Vietnamese sandwich continue to pop up around the city. Great news, in my humble opinion: One can never have too many banh mi to sample.
Possibly the closest thing I’ve had to the perfect sandwich, the classic is all about balance: crunchy, soft, savory, tart, and sweet. Several types of pork—roast or barbecue, paté, and ham—are stacked onto an impeccably fresh baguette with sweet pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, cilantro, and, if you want it spicy, jalapeños. A bit of mayonnaise adds moisture and a squirt (or three, for me) of sriracha brings it all together.
My mouth waters just thinking about the old-school combo, so I was eager to see if these newer entries were up to the standard.
On a rainy Monday afternoon, I stopped into the recently opened Num Pang, a tiny storefront offering a Cambodian spin on the original. Perhaps subconsciously inspired by this song, I chose the hoisin veal meatball sandwich ($6.50). Meatloaf sandwich, meatball sandwich… close enough, right?
The mini assembly line behind the counter cranked out my order in a matter of minutes, and, with an accompanying ginger beer precariously balanced on the tray and wet umbrella in hand, I climbed the narrow spiral staircase to the spartan seating area above. Doing my New York best to pretend I hadn’t noticed Mario Batali sitting at the counter, I perched on one of the few available stools, overlooking a parking garage. Scenic!
Luckily, the sandwich more than made up for the view.
I wasn’t expecting an Asian take on the Italian sub, but that’s what I got. Beautifully crusty, pillowy bread cradled a fair helping of spiced meatballs, falling apart in a sauce of sweet, juicy stewed tomatoes. With traditional (pickled vegetables, crunchy cucumber, fresh cilantro) and not-so-traditional (housemade chile mayo) banh mi accoutrements and lots of sriracha, it made for a deliciously messy five-napkin lunch. While it won’t replace the original banh mi in my sandwich rankings, it’s a solid addition to the category.
By the time I was halfway through, a seat had opened up at the opposite window. I finished my last few bites while watching pedestrians dodge the traffic and the rain on 12th street, and washed it all down with the remains of my ginger beer, already thinking about what to order next time around.
21 E. 12th Street
New York, NY