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Dear Bahn Mi Saigon Bakery,

September 9, 2009

bahnmi_bakery

138 Mott St., NYC

You have made me forget all about the tiny deli on Grand Street that had THE best Vietnamese sandwiches in the five boroughs. And this is a really good thing because I was just about to break a nervous sweat trolling up and down the street looking for that little place. Now that bahn mi joints are practically more common than pizzerias, it is imperative to not take an outstanding bahn mi for granted. And I almost did. Funny the cross streets never stuck in my head after five years, but I had never NOT found it until this day and alas, I think it is gone. We all know this town can be cruel like that.

As I was walking south in despair, fearing that the true and authentic bahn mi had been replaced by a flashy new generation of $13 and too much bread, I saw your sign. It looked and felt right. I bee-lined, barged in, swept past the jewelry counter, and without a second thought, ordered the number One. And well, after a bite or two, I was reminded; the difference between a good bahn mi and an exceptional one is both subtle and clear as day.

The bread. Not just any bread will fit the bill. The perfect bahn mi baguette has to have a certain degree of yielding softness, not like the straight up French kind that makes your teeth work hard and scrapes the roof of your mouth a little, while not a cheap roll that will fall apart either. Since it is usually a take-out item, you may be standing in front of a jewelry store/bakery eating on the street and this thing needs to be compact and sturdy but still of fresh baked quality. My sandwich was lovingly warm, which is best, but for full disclosure I only devoured one half straight away, elbowing through Chinatown, and ate the other refrigerator-cold later. Still super.

The carrot/daikon pickle mix. That punk smell of daikon is mandatory for an authentic bahn mi experience with plenty of crisp vinegar to play with the sweetness that tinges the filling which, on the Number One, is exceptional pork. The caramelized pork, in addition to great texture, adds the fat flavor needed to stand up to the other ingredients which pile on fresh, spicy, salty, pungent and bitter all at once.

There should be a good balance between all of these, not an over abundance of one or the other. It does not sound difficult, but after eating (and making) endless bahn mi I know that, like pizza, even mediocre is still good. All of the ingredients will most likely taste great together: bread, meat, pickle, cucumber, jalapeno, cilantro, mayo (and the sneaky slice of cold cut), but to hit on all of the points just right and to make that ultimately perfect combo is something very special and rare.

I see that I have stumbled upon a deservedly iconic place. The vegetarian summer rolls I took for later also sort of blew my mind. Not expecting much from the pale presence of cellophane noodles wrapped in rice paper with tofu, they showed off with the huge flavors of a great marinade, tons of fresh herbs and two killer dipping sauces, one salty, sweet and gingery, the other a red-hot chili sauce. Fantastic. And on the money. Your cross streets will never leave my heart.

Your fast friend,

Ori

bahnmi_bag

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