Banh Mi Saigon easily blends into the landscape of Grand Street. Brightly colored signs with both Chinese and English lettering mark each shop, with the lingering smell of fish filling the air. Shop owners carefully watch their unrecognizable merchandise sitting on metal shelves outside the storefronts, as I walked down the street, sticking out like a sore thumb with my canvas backpack and pale skin.
As I crossed Mott Street, I began to look up at all of the signs for my destination. Finally, I reached the bright red sign and confidentially walked inside.
The restaurant is located in the back of a small jewelry store, with bar seating lining the walls of the narrow shop.
I walked towards the back where a little counter top is set up. To the left of the counter, a row of refrigerators contain unusual looking beverages and packaged foods that a few of the patrons in front of me picked up and purchased at the counter. They spoke to the small shop owner in a foreign language, bowed and quickly walked out of the shop.
It was abundantly clear that I was one of the few English speaking individuals to walk into the shop, as I ordered their name-sake sandwich, the Banh Mi. The owner said, “Spicy?” as I reluctantly shook my head, opting for the traditional version in fear of the heat.
He turned around and handed me a plastic bag, as I then handed him $4.25 for the sandwich, giving a slight bow of thanks before walking away. I sat at one of the high metal seats lining the wall and opened up the paper bag inside to retrieve one half of the Banh Mi sandwich. They pre-slice and wrap each half separately, so you can opt to have one half spicy and the other traditional.
With one crispy bite, I was in Banh Mi heaven. This sandwich was completely worth the subway trip. While I’ve never been to Saigon or Vietnam for a taste of street food, I can only imagine the experience would be similar to this. The bread is fresh, flaky and crisp, and crumbs fell onto the little wax paper in front of me. The pork is sweet and rich, with the most delicious sauce coating all of the meat. Picked carrots and cabbage add a subtle acidic flavor and crunch, while cucumber and cilantro give off an earthy freshness. The ingredients are bright, bold and flavorful. It’s one hell of a sandwich.
One half was more then enough for me, as I silently grabbed my plastic bag and emerged onto the street. It felt almost like a very simple, respectful experience, entering a different culinary world. I couldn’t see myself coming back with a loud group of friends. It’s a low key place you need to experience, if you can respect the simplicity. They do make it difficult for you to purchase one of these coveted sandwiches, since Banh Mi Saigon is only open until 6pm every day of the week and cash only. But once you try a sandwich, you’ll figure out a way to come back.
Banh Mi Saigon – 198 Grand Street – New York, NY
Banh Mi Saigon
Location: Chinatown/Lower East Side, NY
Perfect For: Authentic Dining, Take Out, Quick Bite, Cheap Eats
Open: Everyday until 6pm
Reservations: Not Necessary or Accepted
Favorite Dishes: Banh Mi
Notes: Cash Only