No one knows precisely when the first bánh mì hit New York, although historians of that ingenious Vietnamese delicacy estimate that it was sometime during the Koch administration, back when there wasn’t such a huge market for crackly demi-baguettes, warmed in the oven, slicked with mayo and pâté, then layered meticulously with a variety of cold cuts and a thatch of pickled and fresh vegetables. One thing is certain: Since that fateful day, the bánh mì (pronounced bun me) has come into its own, transcending its humble Chinatown origins to infiltrate not only hipster enclaves like Williamsburg, which, in the two years since Silent H opened, has become a bánh mì hub, but also the menus of cocktail lounges (Pegu Club, which serves a fried-oyster bánh mì), coffee shops (Roots & Vines, where you can have a bánh mì with your Counter Culture latte), and even wine bars (Terroir offers a mortadella-stuffed bánh mì Italiano). It’s fair to say, in fact, that the bánh mì is the new panino, and the toaster oven (found wherever bánh mì are made, including a new financial-district street cart) the new panini press.
It’s easy to understand the Saigon sub’s appeal. It’s got flavor and textural contrasts that elude most others in its category. It’s got a roll that traditionally incorporates rice flour to make it extra-light and crackly, especially when toasted. It’s got fatty meats, pickled carrots and daikon, fragrant cilantro, cool cucumber, and hot sauce or hot peppers or both. It’s usually got a cheap price tag, too. That’s probably why new bánh mì shops have been popping up like spring crocuses of late. There’s Baogette in Curry Hill (with two more branches on the way), An Choi on Orchard Street, Nha Toi in Williamsburg, and a new Park Slope outpost of Hanco’s. And then there’s Num Pang, which claims not to serve bánh mì at all, but their Cambodian cousin, stuffed with things like tiger shrimp and veal meatballs.
Still, for most aficionados, the classic bánh mì is the one most menus call No. 1, typically layered with varying combinations of a beige-colored, bologna-like pork roll, head cheese, a red-rimmed lardo-like substance, and often sweetish, pinkish barbecued pork. To honor that archetype, we went on a bánh mì binge, eating our way through the stalwart veterans and the new wave alike, judging their No. 1’s on construction, balance, and overall flavor. Here are our favorites.
1. Ba Xuyen’s Pâté Thit Nguôi
New York’s best bánh mì is well lubed and generously stuffed with four takes on Vietnamese pork product, plus a judicious smear of pork-liver pâté. The key, though, is that every ingredient lives in perfect harmony within its crackly crusted baguette. And they don’t stint on the cilantro. $3.75; 4222 Eighth Ave., nr. 42nd St., Sunset Park; 718-633-6601.
2. Baogette’s Baogette
This is a bold, juicy flavor bomb of a bánh mì. Ask for it spicy and that’s what you get. All the meats are made in-house. The jury is out, though, on the correctness of the par-baked baguettes that emerge hot from the oven—but with a slightly doughy crumb. $5; 61 Lexington Ave., nr. 25th St.; 212-518-4089.
3. Bánh Mì Saigon Bakery’s Bánh Mì Saigon
The frenzied crowd at this sandwich counter in the back of a Chinatown jewelry store is of such a magnitude that the kitchen crew is forced to make some sandwiches in advance. That’s not ideal, of course, but the sweet, peppery barbecued pork is so good, you won’t mind. $3.75; 138-01 Mott St., nr. Grand St.; 212-941-1541.
4. Num Pang’s Pulled Duroc Pork
We’re talking apples and oranges here because a bánh mì is not a num pang, according to chef-owner Ratha Chau, who doesn’t offer anything resembling the cold-cut special. But his slow-roasted Duroc pulled pork on a butter-toasted Parisi roll is too good not to include in a list like this. $7.50; 21 E. 12th St., nr. University Pl.; 212-255-3273.
5. Sáu Voi Corp’s Bánh Mì Dac Biêt
This ramshackle Lotto-ticket-and-cigarette shack doubles as a sandwich counter and claims to have introduced bánh mì to New York in 1987. That it’s still around is a testament to the classic minimalist construction of its house special (ham, pâté, turkey, and pork roll on good bread shipped in from Jersey). $3.75; 101–105 Lafayette St., at Walker St.; 212-226-8184.
6. Paris Sandwich’s Bánh Mì Dac Biêt
Everyone knows it takes a good baguette to make a good bánh mì. That’s why the folks at Paris Sandwich—leaving nothing to chance—bake their own baguettes throughout the day. It’s great bánh mì bread: thin-skinned with a delicate crackle but sturdy enough to handily contain a multitude of the usual dac biêt suspects. Too bad the overall sandwich balance is slightly off with bland pork roll leading the flavor parade. $4; 113 Mott St., nr. Hester St.; 212-226-7221.
7. An Choi’s Bánh Mì Dac Biêt
This nicely balanced (if slightly dry) attempt by a former Pastis bar host to take the bánh mì beyond its street-food roots benefits from artful presentation as well as good house-made chicken-liver pâté and five-spiced ham. The headcheese and pork roll are sourced from a top-secret Vietnamese butcher. $6.50; 85 Orchard St., nr. Broome St.; 212-226-3700.
8. Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches’ Classic Vietnamese Sandwich
Credit Nicky’s, the descendant of Sunset Park’s late, lamented An Dong, for bringing the bánh mì out of Chinatown and introducing it to an eager East Village (and later, Boerum Hill) audience when it set up shop a few years ago. They get the layers of sweet-salty-spicy-sour flavors right and the roast pork is as toothsome as it gets, but the portion control can be on the stingy side—our most recent sandwich contained exactly one lonely sprig of cilantro. $5; 150 E. 2nd St., nr. Ave. A; 212-388-1088.
9. Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich, Inc.’s House Special
This bánh mì stalwart, formerly known as Viet-Nam Bánh Mì Saigon No. 1, is under new ownership, and the new guys, if anything, have improved upon the formula. Their hefty #1 House Special is well proportioned and fairly bursting with crumbly grilled pork, spicy headcheese, pork roll, and the standard veggies and condiments in great abundance. In a shocking aberration, however, they charge $1 extra for pâté, which in certain penny-pinching bánh mì circles is a scandal of almost Madoff-ian proportions. $3.50; 369 Broome St., nr. Mott St.; 212-219-8341.
10. Nha Toi’s Bánh Mì Dac Biêt
This weeks-old Williamsburg newcomer is run by a goateed, Fedora-wearing chappie with a progressive streak and a fusion-friendly menu, which includes bulgogi beef and “pho” bánh mì variations. As for the classic cold-cut combo: It needs more heat, more pickled veggies, and more cilantro, but it comes on good bread and it’s great for the neighborhood, not to mention that it’s available daily until 9 p.m., an anomaly in the early-to-bed-early-to-rise world of bánh mì. $6; 160 Havemeyer St., nr. S. 2nd St.; 718-599-1820.