Since Banh Mi Saigon on Grand Street has been closed, we’ve been missing Manhattan’s best Vietnamese sandwich shop. But there are some good alternatives out there, including the version from Banh Mi Zon in the East Village.
The banh mi, of course, is Vietnam’s most internationally prominent sandwich, named after the Vietnamese word for bread and, when in sandwich form, referring to the modified French baguette upon which it is made. One story that appeared in Grub Street claims the sandwich was invented in Saigon by one Le Vo in the early 1950s, when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. Vo operated a drink stand in what was then the capital, making, one presumes, the usual catalog of fruit and avocado smoothies, coffees, and salty lemonades. Inventing the sandwich for the dining convenience of his customers, he is also said to be responsible for the unusual combination of meats that often go into it.
Vo fled Vietnam in 1972 and settled in San Jose; in the 80s he moved to Chicago, and those two cities constitute the point of origin for the sandwich in the States. Back in the 80s, New York City offered few opportunities to sample a banh mi, though sometimes a single choice might appear at the end of a Vietnamese menu on Baxter Street, like that of Pho Pasteur, now known as Pasteur Grill & Noodles. But at the end of that decade, a small banh mi shop appeared in the back of a jewelry store at Mott and Grand, eventually expanding into what is now Bahn Mi Saigon.
Since then, 25 or so places, mainly in Manhattan and Brooklyn, have specialized in the sandwiches. By 2009, the sandwich became even more ubiquitous — Esquire magazine even declared that it was sick of seeing fancy versions of it — and that year, Tai Dang and Truc Lien Huynh, a married couple, opened Banh Mi Zon in the East Village just off Avenue A on East 6th Street. The current owner is Brian Yuen.
The petite shop now offers a roster of six variations on the classic sandwich. The version I’d recommend is very close to Le Vo’s original: Smeared with liver pate and mayo, and layered with ham, the rubbery white pork roll called cha lua, shredded pickled vegetables, slices of cucumber, and a sprig of fresh coriander.
Best of all at Banh Mi Zon, not only is the selection of ingredients perfect, the proportions are exactly right, too. As it should be, the baguette is light and crusty, and heated in a toaster oven before assembly. Take a sniff and be bowled over by the bready and sour-sweet smell of the sandwich, and be sure to taste each of the three meat ingredients separately to see what each contributes to the mellow overall flavor. This so-called banh mi zon ($10.50) comes wrapped in butcher paper, and if you eat one for lunch today, you’ll want another tomorrow.
Order delivery or pickup directly from the website, at banhmizon.com
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