Some foods gain universal adoration and acceptance, despite once being obscure. I understand why banh mis have such a stellar reputation. I’ve loved the mixed up sandwiches ever since I accidentally stumbled on a $1.50 Portland version what seems like a lifetime ago. I had no idea what it was at the time but the idea of something called a French sandwich in a Vietnamese takeout joint was too incongruous to pass up. I was hooked.
And they’re still a value at $3.75 in Brooklyn, even if that’s 75 more cents than my last posting on the subject. I forget the bounty of Sunset Park and really took living in the neighborhood for granted. Who knows, there might come a time when I look back fondly on the so-so Thai and French I’m surrounded by now. Perhaps I should soften my stance.
I don’t think I’ve had a Vietnamese sandwich once in 2008 and broke my dry spell this afternoon at my favorite, Ba Xuyen. And I hate hyperbole, but I swear the #1 was better than I remembered. I’ve experimented a bit and bought a #4 meatball for James, but I like the more is more approach. I also prefer everything bagels over plain or single ingredient.
Maybe because I’ve been eating lighter recently, but the one thing that struck me was how rich the pate was, like they added a little more than usual and mixed with the slightly sweet mayonnaise, created a new velvety condiment. It might’ve been overwhelming if it weren’t for the pickled carrots and daikon and jalapeno rounds lending sharpness. I’m honestly not sure what the different lunch meats are exactly, you can’t mind the cartilagey bits, though; they just add texture and the row of ground pork adds meaty springiness.
I only intended to eat half of my sandwich since this impromptu lunch didn’t take place until after 5pm and I was planning Sri Lankan food for dinner, maybe around 9pm. But I ate the whole thing anyway because it was that good. (And I have another one to look forward to tomorrow–I always buy a second sandwich to bring to work for lunch.) Ba Xuyen’s version is a bit heartier than some others so this might’ve been a mistake. I have zero interest in cooking now.
Ok, I could just leave my banh mi missive like that, happy go lucky and to the point. But I can’t or else it wouldn’t be me. I can’t because while waiting for my sandwich I encountered the convergence of two subjects that garner the angriest comments here: my impatience with know-it-all white foodies showing off their love of ethnic food and my suspicion and dismissal of the seriousness of food allergies. I rarely get comments period, I guess I’m more of a blabber than a cultivator of community, but yes, these are two topics that never fail to elicit vitriol from strangers. And this is how they come together in one interaction.
Twenty-something redhead: Does the #8 have peanuts?
Perfectly nice counter woman with adequate English skills: You want peanuts?
Twenty-something redhead: No, I don’t eat peanuts.
Perfectly nice counter woman with adequate English skills: The pork sandwich has peanuts.
Twenty-something redhead: I can’t eat peanuts. I have allergies.
Perfectly nice counter woman with adequate English skills: Allergies. Ok…
And this devolved into a back and forth with no resolve. The counter woman understood what allergies were but the redhead was getting more exasperated and sniped, “this is really turning into a drama.”
I think the problem was that the counter woman didn’t get what the girl was asking for. To me, it seemed that she wanted a different sandwich than the one she had ordered, sat down with and had started eating and now wanted to know which of the eight choices were peanut-free but she wasn’t really articulating this well. So then, her Asian-American (not Vietnamese, I’m fairly certain) boyfriend came up and reiterated the exact same thing like that would help matters, then announced that he’d just swap his #1 with his girlfriend’s #8 and that would solve peanut-filled sandwich problem.
While waiting for my sandwich, the counter lady was conferring with the cook lady in Vietnamese and every few words you could hear highly accented, allergy huffed with derision. I caught her eye and shared a smile—I didn’t want her want her lumping me into the difficult white lady camp. I’m no trouble-maker.
Sure, I’m guilty of being white and loving to eat food that I didn’t grow up with. I’m all for everyone sampling cuisines of the world. But I have issues with two types: loud, braggadocios who either have traveled extensively or lived in a foreign country and suck the air out of restaurants with their unbridled knowledge (not this couple’s M.O.) and the culinary explorers who expect all conventions of American, particularly neurotic New Yorker, eating quirks to be anticipated and respected.
As a diabetic, I’m careful about avoiding sugar but that’s my problem. If I blindly ordered a foodstuff from an inexpensive storefront, oh, let's say an iced coffee from a Vietnamese establishment, and the beverage I was handed was beige with sweetened condensed milk because that’s what Vietnamese ice coffee is like, it would be my own fault for not asking what it contained first. I wouldn’t expect the business to make me something else due to my mistake. I don't expect Danny Meyer levels of hospitality for $3.75.
Back to the important matter: Ba Xuyen makes the most awesome banh mis in the city. Just watch out for the bbq pork, a.k.a the #8—it’s sprinkled with crushed peanuts. (8/25/08)
I’ve been away from Ba Xuyen longer than I’d realized (though I’ve definitely been back since June ’05 as incorrectly indicated below). They appear to have raised the prices (though $3 is still a bargain. I can’t believe “french sandwiches,” as they called them were only $1.50 when I lived in Portland—granted, that was over eight years ago and I’m starting to sound like an old timer) and have revamped the goodie set up.
There used to be a metal odds and ends table to the left, in front of the counter, filled with treats, hot and cold, sweet and savory. Now they have temperature-controlled cases on the counter. No more fingering the merchandise. And unfortunately they were nearly barren around 4pm on a Saturday. I was saddened by the lack of spring rolls but did pick up a wu gok, one of my favorite (and possibly only) lavender dim sum treats from the self-serve display with plastic trays. This was definitely the first time I’d ever seen these lacy pork-filled taro dumplings (resting in smiley face cupcake wrappers, no less) at Ba Xuyen. That’s a photo from Wonder Seafood (where I threw up a few hours after eating even though I loved the food), it’s not this particular specimen because I ate the heavy nugget in the car trying to fortify myself with starch and fat for the Costco travails that lay ahead.
I went wild and ordered a #8, grilled pork, which I’ve never tried in my life because the #1 is so good, plus it’s the last on the menu so psychologically it doesn’t jump out. It was worth branching out. The meat is charcoal-y in the style you’d find atop Vietnamese vermicelli and they also sprinkle in a few chopped peanuts, which adds a sweet richness and new crunch to go with the pickled vegetables. It just might be a new favorite…so sad that I lived so long without it.
Despite not writing much about them, I’ve been a banh mi advocate for ages (this person has put many more fingers to keyboard on the topic). It’s the perfect sandwich on so many levels that it’s no wonder they inspire such food geekery. But if I had one complaint (I’m allowed one, right?) it would be the way that the ingredients are spread side to side rather than bottom to top.
What I really mean is that I have a hard time with the cilantro bulging out of the cut side of the bread. It’s like there’s little green forest is staring out at me, and I’m ashamed to admit this but I have a stem phobia. I will spazz if I see the little tails on spinach and it’s only in the past decade that I’ve learned to abide romaine ribs. I’m not one of those cilantro haters (there’s little middle ground with the herb) who claims it taste soapy (supposedly that’s an enzyme/genetic thing). The taste is fine, it’s just the sight of those vegetal little twigs that give me heebie jeebies. Of course I can redistribute the ingredients myself, and I do. Once the greenery is balanced throughout the banh mi, I’m less opposed to putting the half-hidden leaves and stems in my mouth. (11/4/06)
This is one of those places that I visit so regularly that I forget to even make mention. This weekend I picked up a #1 and a #4 (meatball) and the last remaining spring rolls. For me, Vietnamese cha gio are the best of the whole Asian stuffed, rolled, fried genre. I was actually hoping for some summer rolls, they often have three different varieties, which are paired with two different sauces, either peanut sauce or nuoc cham. I always wonder how they decide which filling gets which dip. I think it has something to do with whether shrimp or pork predominates the roll. (6/6/05)
This is bizarre because I could've sworn I wrote about Ba Xuyen ages ago, and now I don't have time to backtrack and explain the beauty. In a nutshell, they quite possibly make the city's best banh mi. And their new branch is beyond the bees knees. There is seating and goodies galore. My favorite touch is that the varieties of banh mi (maybe eight? I'm not sure) are illustrated with back-lit photos and numbers just like a "real" American fast food joint. For me, #1 is always number one, but the chicken version isn't bad at all and the one with meatballs beats an old NYC meatball hero any day. (10/29/03)
Ba Xuyen * 4222 Eighth Ave., Brooklyn, NY