Like many exotic delicacies, bánh mì hold a mysterious place in my mind that drives me to distraction, leading me to imagine such strange, dangerous missions as finding an all-night Vietnamese gangster deli. I've since given up that pipe dream, but I still harbor some obsessions about Vietnamese sandwiches. My longstanding theory that restaurants are incapable of creating good bánh mì was recently disproved when I enjoyed a spectacular one at Zak Pelaccio's restaurant 5 Ninth in Manhattan's meatpacking district. More on that gustatory delight later, first some background.
For those of you unfamiliar with these Vietnamese sandwiches run, don't walk, to your nearest Vietnamese deli for a
treat that packs the flavors of Vietnam into a hero. Some spots offer up to 10 varieties,
including bánh mì xiéu mai, or Vietnamese meatball,
and bánh mì gá, or chicken. Regardless of the main ingredient,
they're all dressed with cucumbers; a mixture of pickled julienned daikon and carrots; cilantro; Asian mayonnaise; a
liberal dose of sriracha sauce; and, in my case six or seven small
My hands-down favorite is the bánh mì dac biêt, or special, which combines grilled pork, Vietnamese salami and sliced pork roll. At its best, this sandwich is a brilliant combination in every sense. Cultures, texture and temperature all meet as the French bread cradles a wealth of Vietnamese flavors ranging from the hot, crunchy grilled pork to the cool pickled veggies.
typically run between $2 and $3, and, as I mentioned, are best enjoyed at Vietnamese delis. Up until now the ones I've
had at restaurants are not even worthy of the name bánh mì. There a couple of reasons for this.
First, it's simply not in the restaurant's best interest to make an item well if it sells at such a low price. No one's
gonna order a plate of Vietnamese pork chops if they can enjoy a sandwich for a third of the price. The second reason
for the is that the delis are specialists, all they do is make bánh mi. For years I
trolled the Vietnamese restaurants of Flushing and Manhattan's Chinatown in search of my elusive quarry. My heart would
swell with hope whenever I spied a hand-lettered sign in a window reading bánh mì. But I
always disappointed. Once I ordered one that was little more than a ham sandwich, what roast pork there was on it was
Now my quest is over. After a circuitous wandering in the area of the West Village where space and time seem to fold, with West 4th Street running perpendicular to West 11th, I found myself in front of the townhouse that is home to 5 Ninth. For a moment I panicked and thought they weren't open for lunch, but then I turned the knob on the weathered door and walked inside. I sat at the bar and ordered a Murphy's stout and waited eagerly for my sandwich. What arrived in front of me was bánh mì as art. Roast pork and tendrils of carrot and daikon spilled out of the sandwich that was kept company by a pile of what are surely the best shrimp chips I've ever had. The bánh mì itself was perfect. The crisp baguette shattered, a perfect foil to the roast pork and creamy sweet mayonnaise. The only downside of 5 Ninth's sandwich was the price. At $12, it's not cheap, but it's a price I'm willing to pay to my end my search for a top-notch Vietnamese sandwich.
[photo: Joe DiStefano]