An Choi: Vietnamese for Beginners
As I stood in An Choi's entranceway waiting for my sandwich, I couldn't help but admire the décor: warm wall treatments quizzically stenciled with phone numbers (bicycle repairmen? Prostitutes?), small square tables surrounded by low stools, light bulbs with bare filaments that suggested a Third World market, and—running across the ceiling—thick cables that vibrate and swing, as if you'd just missed the last trolley of the evening. The narrow room takes a jog as it nears the open kitchen, and beyond that lurks a courtyard with a single communal table—perfect for late-night card games. An Choi strives to evoke Vietnam's urban vibe, and admirably succeeds.
My banh mi was being prepared right inside the front door at something that resembled a street cart. I watched as the cook layered pork, rubbery sliced Vietnamese pâté, gelatinous headcheese, real French pâté, fresh cilantro, pickled carrot and daikon, and jalapeños onto a demi-baguette. Next, he squirted on an unguent brown dressing. I took one bite, and the hot, tart, earthy, herbal flavors detonated in my mouth. But even as I delightedly chewed, I wondered why anyone would buy the sandwich here, instead of a few blocks west at Saigon Bakery (138 Mott Street), the most revered of the city's banh mi makers.
So, one afternoon, I snagged the equivalent sandwich at both places, and hurried home by bike to do a statistical workup. An Choi's "banh mi dac biet" ($6.50, plus tax) extended 9.5 inches and weighed 10.6 ounces, while Saigon Bakery's "banh mi Saigon" ($3.75, no tax) proved to be 10.5 inches and 14.2 ounces, substantially outdoing An Choi's version in length, weight, and price. While Saigon Bakery's had only two meats (chunky homemade sausage and Viet pâté), the quantity of fillings was clearly more voluminous. For diners on a budget, it's Saigon Bakery all the way.
Still, you might pick An Choi's banh mi for its baroque and appealing assortment of ingredients, especially the dark and smudgy French pâté, which sends the sandwich into a whole new orbit, retroactively tweaking the noses of Gallic colonialists in the process. Or you might pick An Choi for its perky waitstaff, and because you can sit down while eating your sandwich, and—once the tardy liquor license arrives—knock it back with a Tiger beer. The best sandwich at An Choi, though, isn't the regulation banh mi, but actually an invented variation called "banh mi thit heo quay" ($8), featuring roasted pork belly that alternates layers of garnet meat and crisp fat. Never has a banh mi been so thoroughly lubricated. The café offers more renditions, of which the lemongrass-scented pork is worth trying, while the shredded chicken is ho-hum.
The co-lure of the menu is the classic Vietnamese street-food staple of pho, which is pronounced as a barely aspirated "fffuh." There are two available, including the standard beef kind ($9.50), and one deploying chicken ($9). Beef pho is the way to go, with an admirably clear broth that's a shade lighter, but just as aromatic, as the usual article. The catalog of drop-in beef cuts has been limited to two, but the rice noodles are copious, and you can get beef balls added at no extra charge. Sadly, the soup is devoid of tripe and tendon. Maybe offal scares off Orchard Street café crawlers—or so the reasoning goes. All I can say is: Organ eaters often hide in unexpected places.
Accompanying the pho is a plate of bean sprouts and fresh herbs to be tossed in at your discretion. In this regard, An Choi excels over Chinatown places. On several visits, the selection shifted according to market availability, but usually included holy basil, cilantro, mung bean sprouts, and peppermint. One evening, there was an herb that I had to dig into my reference books to identify—saw-tooth green ribbons with a slightly bitter flavor called ngo gai, said to have digestive properties.
The spare menu—seemingly aimed at Viet food neophytes—contains unfried summer rolls wrapped in rice paper, one featuring shrimp, the other tofu and mushrooms. These tend to be boring. Preferable are the spring rolls, which are good and greasy, especially the one with pork and crab. They come with the vinegar dipping sauce called nuoc cham, and if you spill it on your jeans, you'll smell like fish for a week. Anyway, you're better off skipping the apps entirely and heading straight for the banh mi and pho. Just pretend you're sitting at a hawker stall in the alleyways of Ho Chi Minh City.
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