In food, as in life, your first instinct is usually the right one. I realized that today after searching out a banh mi sandwich for lunch.
First though, let me show you the spectacular view from the corner office where I had a meeting downtown. On one side was a direct look at Ground Zero.
I have never seen Ground Zero in person, and to view it so clearly from above like that gave me pause. It’s eerie — on the one hand it looks like a generic construction site, but then you remember what happened there.
The other window looked out onto New York Harbor — there’s the Statue of Liberty on the left and Ellis Island on the right.
It was easy to picture the scene of 100 years ago, with steamships arriving in the harbor, passing the Statue of Liberty and entering Ellis Island. When you’re on Ellis Island the place feels weighty and formidable. From the window it just looks tiny.
Anyway, back to the banh mi search. I’d been given a few Vietnamese restaurant recommendations in Chinatown that I fully trusted; I’d also read about a Cambodian sandwich shop in Union Sq. serving num pang, the Cambodian version of a banh mi.
My first instinct was for Chinatown, where I knew the banh mi would be fresh, authentic, and undoubtedly delicious. But I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of a Chinatown lunchtime rush and the possibility of not being able to sit. Union Sq. sounded more manageable, and based on the merit of strong Yelp reviews, I headed towards Num Pang Sandwich Shop.
From what I can tell, a banh mi and a num pang are very similar. Both incorporate cucumber, pickled carrots, cilantro and French bread, with some kind of meat choice (at Num Pang there were also options for seafood or roasted cauliflower).
Here’s my pulled durok pork num pang.
The toasted bread was spot on. The rest — it was all right. Nothing really wrong with it, but the pork was unremarkable and the sandwich was kind of pricey ($7.50) and smallish. (By comparison, a footlong banh mi would probably be around $3.75).
I left feeling a little disappointed and hungry. Check that, a lot hungry. Next time I’ll trust my gut, brave the Chinatown crowds, swerve around the men spitting on the sidewalk, and pick up an honest-to-goodness banh mi.
Num Pang Sandwich Shop
21 East 12th St.
New York, NY