In this space, James A. Foley explores New York City’s strangest sandwiches.
I rarely (if ever) have any internal deliberation over what to order at a banh mi shop. My selection, regardless of whether I’m trying a place for the first time or making a repeat visit, is the same: the classic sandwich, a definitive combo of pork and pâté with a fresh and crunchy medley of pickled veggies and cilantro, which I prefer as jalapeño-laden and sriracha-drenched as possible. It’s a solid, classic combination that’s almost always more involved and interesting than other banh mi ingredient choices. I’m sure grilled chicken and tofu are tasty, but they can be eaten in some form at pretty much every restaurant ever.
But when I stepped into my local Hanco’s this time, I ordered the sardine sandwich, because it seemed like the most ridiculous, polarizing thing on the menu.
There was something both repulsive and appealing about a sandwich with warm chunks of dark sardine meat swimming in a light tomato sauce. If it had cheese, it would have resembled a tuna melt; as it was, though, a distinct fishy flavor was hedged with bites of crisp veggies and accented by mayonnaise, chili sauce, and toasty bread. The fish might have played better if it wasn’t paired with the pickled radish, carrot, and cucumber that topped it, but then the sandwich would no longer seem like a banh mi, either (or at least not a bahn mi as we know it–banh mi, or more accurately bánh mì, is actually a general term in Vietnamese that refers to bread).
Unfortunately, comparing the sardine and tomato sauce sandwich to the classic isn’t fair: Roasted ground pork, pâté, and ham work infinitely better than salty sardines and sauce. Eating it was something I’m glad I did, but will never do again.
Better luck next time. I think for now, I’ll stick with the classics.