Bêp, Nhá Tôi, and the Evolution of the Banh Mi
In my favorite Sunset Park, Brooklyn, banh mi shop, the women behind the counter are efficient, superlative sandwich makers who speak heavily accented English and preside over a spotless but Spartan seating arrangement. The banh mi are traditional: cold cuts, pâté, roast pork, and sardines—no funny business.
At Nhà Tôi, a new banh mi spot in Williamsburg, Fred Hua, the goateed owner, wears a flannel newsboy cap and speaks with a California cool-kid drawl. He's as likely to be chatting about different kinds of canvas with an artist friend as he is to be speaking fluent Vietnamese with his cook. Hua is from California, of Vietnamese descent, and his banh mi inventions run from seared basa fish (because he doesn't like sardines), to Korean bulgogi, to more traditional sandwiches.
New York's banh mi shops have come into their second generation—opened by restaurateurs other than first-generation immigrants—in neighborhoods that were previously banh mi–deficient. While the stuffed, charcuterie-heavy sandwiches used to be concentrated in Manhattan's Chinatown and Brooklyn's Sunset Park, they're suddenly everywhere, fabricated by Vietnamese-Americans or whipped up by chefs like Michael Huynh, co-owner of Baoguette.
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Williamsburg now has two new Vietnamese spots (and one coming soon). Open now are Hua's Nhà Tôi and Bêp, a Mondays-only, pop-up restaurant that serves banh mi, among other down-home favorites. Bêp is run by An Nguyen Xuan, a man of Vietnamese heritage who was born and raised in Paris. Both Hua and Xuan cook with a respect for Vietnamese tradition, but aren't afraid to play with high-end ingredients and unorthodox flavors.
Walking into Bêp on a rainy night, the first thing we noticed were the good smells coming from the open kitchen—herbal, porky, and oily. The aroma of deep-frying was coming from the cha gio (spring rolls) being turned out quickly and in great quantity. Absolutely everyone was ordering the spring rolls—once you get a look, you're possessed with a need to have them. Truly, these cha gio were some of the best I've ever come across—tubby, fat rolls encased in a blistered golden wrapper that crackled and shattered on my shirt when I bit into the pork and mushroom filling.
Bêp is all about homey food, made with quality ingredients and presented in a more refined way than most of the Vietnamese spots in Chinatown (although not always with more sophisticated flavor). Besides the spring rolls, there's a selection of noodle bowls (bun), beef pho, and other soups, and two types of banh mi.
The banh mi arrived in a neat little basket. The sandwich was elegantly (maybe too elegantly) proportioned, and the bread was perfect: soft and airy, crusty but not so much so that it shreds the roof of your mouth. It may have been made with a touch of rice flour for lightness, as is traditional for a banh mi baguette. It was buttered on one side and mayo-ed on the other; tucked inside was the pale and bouncy pork roll that's like the best bologna imaginable, and slices of caramelized grilled pork that tasted faintly of lemongrass and garlic, along with the usual cucumber, cilantro, and pickled daikon and carrot. It was a lovely sandwich, but to me, it was under-stuffed and lacked punch. It was a banh mi that would never get messy and never make you close your eyes to concentrate on how delicious it is. Still, it's a sandwich that will suit many people and is skillfully made.
Bêp is wonderful in other ways, too: Try the bun (a rice noodle bowl), with more of those awesome spring rolls and grilled pork, along with a shower of bright mint and basil. Just a few blocks away, at Nhà Tôi, Hua whips up 10 different kinds of banh mi and nine goi cuon (summer rolls). His most inspired creation is the pho banh mi, a hybrid of a banh mi, stuffed with all the makings of pho (except the broth and the noodles). Fatty brisket, bean sprouts, mint, and Thai basil, all slicked with hoisin, join the usual pickled vegetables, cilantro, and mayo.
Replacing the traditional sardine banh mi, the basa fish sandwich is also quite good. The fillet has a nice sear on the outside and tastes mild and clean, enriched by a copious amount of mayo. At a traditional banh mi joint, vegetarians don't have many choices, but at Nhà Tôi, there are several. Steer clear of the seared tofu, though, which is bland, and go for one of the mushroom (portobello or shiitake) options. Instead of adding slices of jalapeños to each sandwich, Nhà Tôi's banh mi come with a small, menacing bird's-eye chile on the side. Take a tiny nibble of the incendiary pepper along with a bite of sandwich.
But Hua also fabricates more traditional banh mi, including the classic cold-cut combo, which combines pork roll and headcheese with a very livery pâté. There's also bi heo—a classic combination of pulled pork, gelatinous, translucent shreds of pork skin, and roasted rice powder. The rubbery texture of the pork skin makes this one an acquired taste.
Even if Nhà Tôi wasn't making such good banh mi, it would still be a worthy addition to the neighborhood for the summer rolls alone. The rolls are made to order and are filled with rice noodles and herbs, as well as combos like Chinese sausage and roast pork, or bacon and shrimp. The combinations are often genius, providing hot-cold and crunchy-soft contrasts. Skip the bulgogi-kimchi version, though—the assertive beef and pickled cabbage overwhelm the rice paper and rice noodles.
Banh mi were what Vietnamese cooks came up with when faced with colonial French baguettes. When you think of it that way, improvisation is built into banh mi DNA, and it's only natural that second-generation cooks should have their way with it.
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