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There are number of great places in New York to get a banh mi -- the iconic (and often affordable) Vietnamese sandwich -- and most of them are concentrated in Downtown Manhattan. Two of the most popular, Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich and Banh Mi Saigon, happen to be just a block and a half from each other, in that weird in-between area that's not quite Chinatown, not quite Nolita. The most noticeable difference between them? Banh Mi Saigon has a small jewelry stand up front, and Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich makes a better banh mi.
Of the several banh mi options here, the one to order is the $5.50 Pate Supreme, which comes on a crisp, sesame seed-covered baguette that cuts up the roof of your mouth only a little, and opens to a fluffy center that soaks up some of the more mop-up-able ingredients. The creamy pate provides a smooth base for the layers of salty, rich cha lua (Vietnamese pork roll) and thit nguoi (ham), which get topped off with sweet, crunchy carrot matchsticks, bitter shards of daikon, and cilantro. If you’re okay with some spice, the chili paste keeps the heat to a comfortable level and doesn’t overwhelm the other flavors so much as tie them all together.
Ask the super-friendly staff for your sandwich to-go, and spend your wait time (which is often minimal) engaging in the fairly magnificent people-watching opportunities this place affords. The other folks waiting for their lunch orders are always an entertainingly disparate crowd, drawn together by their love of New York's best banh mi (even if it doesn't come with a silver bracelet).
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Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli is a hole-in-the-wall that’s easy to overlook, but it shouldn’t be: the specialty banh mi here are not only gigantic, they’re fantastically cheap. The cash-only deli exists in a neighborhood borderland, where Soho, Chinatown, and Little Italy bleed into each other in a dizzying cultural clash. The effect can be likened to the concept of banh mi itself: an unlikely yet culinarily rewarding product of French influence on Vietnam. Twelve varieties are on offer (eight classics and four vegan), but the undisputed king of them all is the house special. A poster hanging in the sparse space shows the cross-section of what to expect: a toasted baguette (more Italian than French in character, really), pickled daikon and carrot, crispy minced pork, a speckled Vietnamese bologna, thin slices of a pasty and much lighter pork-and-chicken sausage, and finally a fistful of cilantro over a liberal application of hollandaise. The old man behind the counter will encouragingly ask if you want to go spicy (read: add chunks of raw, seedy jalapeño). Don’t disappoint him. You smell the huge sandwich before you taste it, but behind the fish-house bunk odor is a complex and interesting eat where different tastes and textures -- soft with hard, fresh with pickled -- are at play. The other meat variations don’t disappoint, with the pate supreme and sweet minced pork as runner-up bets. If pork is a no-no and you must go vegan or vegetarian, the lemongrass mock chicken and mushroom and tofu numbers are better than the rest. While it’s really banh mi or bust here, a survey of the cluttered counter will reveal a selection of imported treats, like wasabi-dipped peanuts from Thailand and Vietnamese coffee, that are worth adding to your order. This banh mi beacon stands as proof that bargain does not mean inferior.