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 1989, the Vietnamese banh mi sandwich came into its own in New York City. Before that, it had been offered mainly as a sideline in pho parlors, usually made on Italian bread that had a thick crust and little character. Then as if by magic, Banh Mi Saigon appeared in the back of a jewelry shop on Mott Street just south of Grand. Word of mouth soon filled the place. It offered little seating, but excellent double sandwiches — each half wrapped in a waxed paper bag that seemed like a throwback to another time and continent — for around $3, even then an astonishingly low price for what was easily a full and satisfying meal.
In the ensuing decade, three or four other places opened in the area between Walker and Broome, using the same formula of a crusty demi-baguette stuffed with shredded and pickled daikon and carrots, julienned cucumber, a sprig of cilantro, and sometimes fresh jalapeños. The main ingredient of the flagship sandwich was a combination of barbecue pork done in-house and a rubbery pâté, something like bland bologna that made newcomers to the genre scratch their heads. Thick mayo supplied lubrication to these sandwiches that provided an interplay of tart, mellow, and sharp flavors. Further main ingredients available ran to curry chicken, sliced beef, meatballs, pork chops, and sardines.
In 2010, Banh Mi Saigon moved around the corner into grander digs on the north side of Grand Street. Curiously, the gem counter was retained. The biggest innovation was that Banh Mi Saigon now had a bakery where it could produce its own baguettes, which were lighter and crustier than the ones commonly used. These baguettes were so good they impressed my Los Angeles friends, who had long taken drive-in banh mi chains like Lee’s and Mr. Baguette for granted in their own mix of Vietnamese restaurants. Now we could say our own Vietnamese sandwiches were every bit as good. And the No. 1 sandwich of barbecue pork and pate still sets you back only $6.25. 198 Grand Street, between Mott and Mulberry streets, Little Italy