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.