A Hero's Welcome
Whenever I visit Los Angeles, my pal Jonathan Gold takes me on a food tour in his green pickup. We stop frequently to try things he knows I can't get in New York, like Oaxacan pig spine in green mole, Thai noodle soups of amazing complexity, and goat birria, served with thick homemade tortillas dripping chile gravy. One day on a sweep through the San Gabriel Valleyafter sampling some splendid dim sum suckling pigwe pulled up at Mister Baguette, a Vietnamese bakery that churned out Parisian-style baguettes. You could take the still-hot loaves home, orand this was what customers lined up forhave them made into banh mi sandwiches. "Gee, if only we had something like this in New York," I enthused.
Well, now we do. Paris Sandwich recently appeared on Mott Street just north of Canal, exhibiting a similar setup and the same Gallic swagger as Mr. Baguette. The sign outside features an Eiffel Tower, which replaces the first a in Paris Sandwich. Inside, there's a computer-equipped order counter, a giant Technicolor menu, and a bare-bones dining room that allows you to watch the cooks from the shoulders up as they assemble the sandwiches.
Sure, we've had banh mi parlors before; in fact, there are a half dozen within a few blocks of Paris Sandwich. Squirreled away in jewelry stores, or sharing space with cell phone sellers, these banh mi counters have been thrilling local diners for a decade, producing lush sandwiches, often with homemade ingredients, and using whatever bread they could get their hands on. In downtown Manhattan, that meant torpedo-shaped Italian loaves, an iffy imitation of French bread that first appeared in New York in the 1920s, when the city was seized by a baguette craze. The typical New York banh mi is really a cross between a Vietnamese banh mi and an Italian hero.
So, brace yourselves. Paris Sandwich's banh-mi is a different animal. The quantity of stuffing is frankly meager, just the way it is when you get a baguette sandwich in Paris. The crusty loaf is the star. The bakery-cum-café's signature "Paris special baguette" ($3.50) is a tour de force of dodgy pork parts: head cheese crunchy with pig ear, scarlet-rimmed and dead-white pork belly, and a pork pâté that may remind you of boiled bratwurst. Sweet pickled veggies and fronds of cilantro provide garnish, and the sandwich is dressed with plain mayo. Much more enticing are: grilled and glazed pork (#5); Vietnamese meatball (#6), deploying squished forcemeat lavishly swabbed with Russian dressing; and vegetarian chicken (#10), utilizing greasy chopped tempeh that seems more pork than poultry. Ask for jalapeños to be put on your sandwich when you place your order at the cash register.
There are 12 banh mi in all, including a plain ham and cheese version based on its Parisian prototypenot really very exciting. Those who love strong flavors would be well advised to seek out #7, the imperial "sardine fish baguette." Paris Sandwich also offers a selection of what it calls Vietnamese fast food, including various spring and summer rolls, grilled pork chops over rice, and chicken curry. The curry is served in a deep bowl, and sided with a baguette, as is traditional in Vietnam.
Or, you could forget the banh mi and simply take home a warm baguette.
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