Bettering bánh mì

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  The bánh mì at Central Parc Bánh Mì offers casual diners a taste of New York by way of Saigon

I moved to New York City just in time for a kind of sandwich renaissance.

The city had become famous for native parms, meatballs, sausages and Italian cold cuts.

But no one cared much about any of them; instead, everyone was fixated on the bánh mì.

"They are so rich in history, complex in flavor and full of contradictions that they make other sandwiches look dumb," The New York Times reported in 2009.

I spent most of that year wandering around the city inhaling variations on the bánh mì and dreaming of Saigon: the Shangri La of Sandwiches.

But when I moved here, I found myself mired in a mirage.

The same sad sandwich was sold on almost every corner"”a crumbly roll stuffed with flavorless, off-white lunchmeats and lined with eerie faux mayonnaise and warm pig liver paté.

Variations on the bánh mì existed, but they fell largely flat of the loving homages being put together all over New York.

The bánh mì heo quay (roast pork sandwiches) sold at local bakeries consisted mainly of lukewarm lardoons and cheap oyster sauce.

A new pseudo-Turkish franchise called bánh mì thịt nưá»›ng Doner Kebab hocks godless grilled pork grinders at locations throughout the city, but they are more filling than delicious.

To my mind, the two masked women who crank out bánh mì thịt nưá»›ng (grilled porkball subs) at 37 Nguyen Trai Street reigned as the unofficial sandwich queens until last month, when everything changed.

Two sandwich spots opened up serving serious bánh mì at a prices that remain distinctly Saigon.

Central Parc Bánh Mì

The French woman who brought you the fancy-pants Au Parc café recently opened a sandwich place that could make it in New York.

Though they deliver few people know about this hidden gem.

Central Parc Bánh Mì sits in Au Parc's tiny catering office, situated at the end of a long driveway behind the new Häagen-Dazs ice cream parlor.

Despite its terrible hours, the hidden location offers sandwich lovers a wormhole back to the city that never sleeps.

On a recent afternoon, Kurtis Blow rapped about his girlfriend to an empty room.

 The quaint shop's exposed brick walls are lined with counters and stools. Covers clipped from old issues of The New Yorker dot the walls and a stack of back issues sits on the counter.

Central Parc's somewhat pricey menu is loaded with delicious options.

The substantial avocado and cheddar sandwich (VND75,000) comes on a house-made whole wheat baton with a slap of fine mustard.

The VND90,000 pink roast beef (while only an appetizer, by New York standards) rivals the pricier option alternative served at Cafe L'Usine.

But in my mind, the shop's straight-up bánh mì is what makes it special.

For VND45,000 gets you a beautiful baguette (crisp on the outside, moist on the inside) filled with shreds of roast pork shoulder and chà bông pork that's been soaked in fish sauce and then fried into a fluff. Central Parc ties it all together with delicate cinnamon-scented pate, paprika aioli and sweet pickles.

Le Bánh Mì

 
The sleek lunch counter of Le Bánh Mì is nothing short of brilliant
The sandwich served at Le Bánh Mì is not all that different from the sinful doner kebabs being served up around town, except that everything in it tastes a little bit better.

The model for the restaurant is nothing short of brilliant: a sleek counter and a picnic table.

They stay open late and serve fresh Sapporo right in the heart of the "Japanese Ghetto"on the north end of Le Thanh Ton.

The venture was principally conceived by two Vietnamese investors and Bobby Chinn's dad, Franklyn, who insisted that the place make one thing and make it well.

A German chef named Andreas Ertle met that demand by designing a cheap, hearty sandwich made from roast pork shoulder.

Every day, for the past three weeks, Ertle roasts the meat and then hands it off to two girls in matching aprons and hot pants who carefully arrange it into sandwiches at the counter.

CENTRAL PARC BÁNH MÃŒ
Address: 7bis Han Thuyen Street, District 1, HCMC
Tel: (08) 3 822 8549

LE BÁNH MÃŒ
Address: 12 Le Thanh Ton Street, District 1, HCMC
Tel: (08) 3 822 1063

Despite being dressed up in cucumbers, cilantro and chili flesh, the pork tastes vaguely like Scweinbraten"”moist, mild and lined with tasty ribbons of fat.

Le Bánh Mì gives you your choice of a firm baguette (VND40,000) or the flaky, airy "local bread" (VND35,000).

The only variation here lies in the three house-made mayonnaises, also created by Ertle. I eschewed "the Umami" (the popular Wasabi blend) to suss out the difference between "the Bale" (a black peppercorn sauce) and "the Phu Quoc" (made with fish sauce), but I could not find one.

Both sandwiches tasted like roast pork and rich mayonnaise an addictive if simple combination. When I returned to try the house specialty at 2 p.m. on a Sunday, I found all of the seats had been overturned.

Ertle sat drinking a beer with a faraway look in his eyes.

He had opened the restaurant at 11 a.m. and sold everything in just three hours.

A man in slacks and a business shirt wandered up to the counter rubbing his stomach and whining about the early closing.

"It may already be time to open a second location," Ertle muttered.

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