The effects of the Asian sandwich explosion can be glimpsed most poignantly in the Pygmalion-like transformation of the lowly fish sandwich. Once synonymous with thickly battered, mercilessly deep-fried square patties squished between a styrofoam bun and further humiliated by a piece of orange plastic cheese, the filet-o-fish has become, in the hands of the sandwich revisionists, a different beast entirely. Flattered, caressed, and embellished by cilantro bouquets, Sriracha mayonnaise, and potent spices, flaky white fish has been elevated into the realm of the exotic — texture aside, there’s nothing flaky about it.
For this week’s Battle of the Dishes, we compared the fish sandwiches from Num Pang and Xie Xie. Num Pang, the tiny Union Square Cambodian sandwich shop opened by Kampuchea Noodle Bar’s Ratha Chau, offers a $7.50 Peppercorn Catfish sandwich. Xie Xie, Angelo Sosa’s similarly diminutive “Asian fast food” outlet in Hell’s Kitchen, has the $8.75 Fish Cha Ca La Vong. So how do they compare?
Looks-wise, both sandwiches had their charms. Num Pang’s catfish boasted a peppery crust, fat cilantro leaves, a tangle of julienned pickled carrots, fat slabs of cucumber, and a drizzle of chili mayo that peeked out from the bread like a slip from a skirt hem. The bread, baked to Chau’s specifications by Parisi Bakery, was plump and golden, with a shiny, springy crust. Xie Xie’s fish, which is tilapia, is marinated in turmeric so boasted a healthy amber glow, which was further set off by a clump of purple onion jam. In addition to cilantro there were spidery strands of dill, and little tributaries of Sriracha mayo oozing from beneath the alluringly crusty bread. Altogether, Xie Xie had the edge looks-wise, thanks mainly to the turmeric and dill.
Taste-wise, it was also a difficult call. Xie Xie’s Cha Ca La Vong sounds like the stage name of a Vietnamese drag queen, and its flavors were similarly vibrant. The fish, which was incredibly moist, all but melted in the mouth, and the warmth of the turmeric married beautifully with the sweet, husky onions. The dill and cilantro provided a clear, fresh counterpoint to the dizzying turmeric-onion morass, and while the heat of the Sriracha mayo didn’t really register, the bottle of Sriracha on the table more than compensated, and took the sandwich from being just really good to ass-kickingly excellent. Although the whole thing was a little too bready, it was altogether a very happy experience.
Num Pang’s catfish was also quite moist, and further benefited from the peppery crust around its edges. It was a bit fishier than Xie Xie’s tilapia, as one would expect from catfish. Its chili mayo emitted a satisfying degree of heat, and the pleasures of its pickled carrots, cucumber, and cilantro were straightforward and abundant. The bread to bits ratio was more favorable than Xie Xie’s, and while the crust wasn’t as crackly, it had a clean, satisfying snap to it.
The bottom line is that both of these sandwiches are compulsively satisfying. But Xie Xie’s did kick the fish sandwich formula up a notch, rising just above Num Pang’s very solid but more workaday interpretation. So it’s Xie Xie, by a fin.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 27, 2009