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A Beefy Vietnamese Grilled Cheese Shows Tiny Sandwiches Can Be Mighty

Critic Robert Sietsema ponders the small sandwich, highlighting Van Da’s pho short rib grilled cheese

The short rib grilled cheese comes with soup.
The short rib grilled cheese comes with soup.

It is my intention to celebrate the sandwich this year by finding as many tasty examples as possible, with a special emphasis on fringe styles, but also presenting sandwiches that were considered more normal 30 years ago that now seem quaint. I will do this weekly and periodically present round-ups of the ones I consider best.


In the days of Mad Men, cocktail parties held in your living room were all the rage, and the classic snack to go with the high balls and martinis was the canapé. These pass-around delicacies were supposedly French in origin, and usually featured a small round of white bread with a few carefully matched morsels on top. Sometimes a slice of pâté, sometimes a swatch of ham and a cornichon held together with a toothpick. They were tiny, open face sandwiches, to be dispatched with a bite or two.

Well, sandwiches have gotten bigger and bigger in the interim, and canapés have fallen out of fashion, as have home cocktail parties. Nowadays, cocktails are consumed in restaurants, with a selection of small plates to serve as weak diversion between gulps of mixed drink. But maybe there is a future in small sandwiches, rather than large ones. Earlier in this series, we reported on a miniature egg sandwich found at One Girl Cookies, calculated to stanch an appetite in three or four bites. Two features of this sort of tiny sandwich are apparent: They allow carbophobes to enjoy a sandwich without eating much bread, and provide a superior cost-to-profit ratio for restaurateurs. In other words, consumers will tolerate small sandwiches at elevated prices.

Small sandwiches may be about to have their day in the sunlight. I recently encountered one at Van Da, a new East Village Vietnamese restaurant that divides its menu in four sections, three based on regions of the country, with one section for street food snacks. One of those snacks is called pho short rib grilled cheese ($14). About the size of a half sandwich, it contains braised short rib crushed into the melted provolone cheese. The flavor is intensely beefy, and the texture of the meat is coarse and tender. On the side, the restaurant serves a cup of pho broth with shredded herbs, in much the same way a cup of tomato soup was once served with a more conventional grilled cheese. Dip or drink (or both); it’s up to you. 234 E. 4th St., between avenues A and B, East Village

Upstairs at Van Da
Upstairs at Van Da
Downstairs at Van Da
Downstairs at Van Da

Van Da

234 East 4th Street, Manhattan, NY 10009 (917) 994-4781 Visit Website

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