Chinatowns in Manhattan, Sunset Park, and Elmhurst have long been a steady source of banh mi. This Vietnamese sandwich is made on a demi-baguette with a crisp crust and light crumb — and no, the loaf doesn’t usually contain rice flour, according to cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, addressing a frequent misconception. The delectable sandwich has spawned a host of variations that showcase such other main ingredients as lemongrass chicken, canned sardines, and baked tofu, though the original uses pate, ham, and a distinctive white sausage of large circumference called cha lua.
Not long ago, Manhattan’s Chinatown lost one of its most celebrated purveyors. Sau Voi sold spectacular banh mi along with other seemingly random products, like music cassette tapes, cigarettes, and cheap bras. Other purveyors, like Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli, have entertained less predictable hours since the virus hit. Which is why the recent advent of Banh Mi Co Ut, around the corner on Elizabeth Street just south of Grand, was such a welcome event.
Open just two weeks, the place is boxy and well lit, with plastic sheeting between counter and customer and no seating to speak of except for a couple of folding chairs, which you are welcome to unfold inside or outside the front door as you wait for your sandwich or even chow down.
At the register presides owner Co Ut Tran, which explains the name of the place. She tells me she’s from Saigon — using the former name of Ho Chi Minh City before it was renamed in 1975 after the conclusion of the Vietnam War.
True to its name, the shop makes a series of nine banh mi, priced from $6.50 to $7.50. The flagship of the fleet is No. 4, banh mi thit nguoi. For a banh mi, which is usually made with a modest quantity of the main ingredient, this example is overstuffed. It includes a schmear of pate, two slices of cha lua, a slice of salami, and, miracle of miracles, a slice of fatty Virginia ham, which adds a rich and salty savor. Such a ham is not what you’d usually find in these sandwiches — more often, boiled ham is deployed. It makes No. 4 the sandwich equivalent of a meat lover’s pizza.
Tran and her busy cooks don’t stop with sandwiches. As at other banh mi parlors in Chinatown, such as the sainted Banh Mi Saigon on nearby Grand Street, it offers snacks. These include the summer rolls called ggoi cuon ($5), two to an order, wrapping rice paper around luxuriant quantities of shrimp, crunchy greenery, basil, and rice vermicelli. The rolls would be good plain, but a dark, peanut-laced dipping sauce puts them over the top.
There’s also a generous green papaya salad ($6) dotted with glistening beef jerky and with a fish-sauce dressing on the side. It’s well worth ordering, especially since the jerky is made in-house and the papaya is especially crunchy. A less commonly seen snack is banh bot loc; usually, the term refers to round or half-moon crystalline dumplings that allow you to see what’s inside, made with a variety of fillings. Here, in a version Tran ascribes to Saigon, and which are “very difficult to make,” they arrive in packages of two concealed in banana leaves tied with a bow. Once unwrapped, the dumplings resemble amber amulets, in which dried shrimp and pork shine like jewels.
The menu is filled with such gems. Another is banh mi No. 8, banh mi bo kho — in this case not a sandwich but a beef stew, served in the conventional manner with an entire loaf of bread scored for your dipping convenience. It may be the best thing on the menu; the broth beautiful in its deep brown translucence, with fancily cut carrots providing sweetness. Lots of richly textured beef cooked to softness and often rimmed with big globs of tendon bob around on top.
Co Ut also provides two versions of pho, one made with beef and the other with chicken. The pho bo (beef pho) is Saigon style, with three kinds of beef: hunks of brisket, slivers of tendon, and beef balls, the latter an added bonus since they usually have to be ordered separately at most Vietnamese restaurants. Sprouts and basil are served on the side, and a small cup of hoisin and hot sauce mixed together is provided. Use this to dip the meats.
At $8.50, this beef pho is quite a bargain, and since it arrives in two containers with the broth on the side, you can dose the supple noodles gradually to keep them warm. And if you don’t use all the broth, save some to use in a soup thrown together at home. Never let a great broth go to waste.