Pastrami is for Sundays at Jewish delis with the parents. Turkey and avocado is so Los Angeles circa 2000. And don’t even get me started on the chain restaurants that think pumping out the nauseating smell of “fresh baked bread” will make me hungry for lunch.
The new sandwich has arrived. Direct from South East Asia.
Anyone who has spent time in Vietnamese immigrant enclaves searching for the best bowl of pho is probably familiar with the other street food staple, banh mi. Banh mi, perhaps the best-known South East Asian sandwich, is found on almost every city street corner in Saigon and Hanoi. There the French bread sandwich is near ubiquitous- piles of baguettes split down the middle and layered with pate, pickled vegetables and spicy chilies fill the carts of vendors and the bellies of the hungry denizens.
In America, just as banh mi is breaking out of the immigrant enclaves and into the mainstream, new chefs are already playing with the concept of the South East Asian sandwich with delicious results.
Num Pang in Manhattan is one such restaurant that is skipping over the introduction to the Asian sandwich and smacking you in the face with their bold sandwich pairings. Chef Ratha Chau styled Num Pang’s sandwiches after his Cambodian heritage- fish, meat, and vegetables are piled onto crisp and crunchy semolina mini-baguettes and smothered in Num Pang’s signature sauce, a sort of Sriracha laced mayonnaise. Shredded pickled carrots, thinly sliced cucumber, and cilantro add distinctive South East Asian flair to regular offerings like a gooey pulled pork in honey laced sauce and coconut tiger shrimp.
But it is the rotating specials that really get me excited. Just steps away from Union Square, I like to imagine that the caramelized leeks in the grilled mackerel sandwich were purchased at the farmer’s market that same day. Indeed, the restaurant does draw inspiration from its proximity to seasonal produce with a “market” gazpacho- a nice rendition of the classic summer soup with tart early season tomato flavor and a nice sweet and spicy balance that keeps it Asian- a cool accompaniment to whichever spicy, sweet, salty, tart sandwich is eaten alongside.
At The Spice Table in Downtown Los Angeles, it is bright, vinegary coleslaw in clear plastic tubs that serves as pallet cleanser for the Asian sandwich spread at this Singaporean-Vietnamese newcomer. The “Cold Cut” sandwich is a hefty version of the more typically thin banh mi. A long baguette is layered with pate, ham, and headcheese, stuffed with pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, cilantro leaves, and spicy jalapeno slices. A recent visit featured a rich pork belly sandwich special that was like Banh Mi 2.0. Other regular sandwich offerings like fried catfish and chicken keep most of the same fixings as the Cold Cut but add in the occasional spring of mint or hint of lemongrass. Rest assured that even if the names are a bit ordinary- chicken, meatball, cold cut- Spice Table is no Subway.
If the lines at Num Pang the brisk business and Spice Table are any indication, the citizens of New York and Los Angeles are catching on to what the people of Saigon have know for years: a sandwich just tastes better when layered with sweet, spicy, tangy South East Asian flavors. And who knows? If banh mi really is the new sandwich, maybe pate and pickled vegetables will be the new Subway special.