Ba Xuyen

In the last few years, I’ve noticed that I use “adventure” a lot to describe my excursions or trips. I’m not sure how a well-planned holiday qualifies as an adventure, but I’m thinking it has something to do with my age and looking for ways to trick myself into greater excitement. On the flip side, when I’m not looking forward to doing something that may be boring or drawn out or when something was unpleasant but benign, I call the event an adventure. The act of moving to New York and trying to find an apartment was an adventure, fainting for the first time this year was an adventure, and spending an hour on a local train to try a new restaurant, such as going for Chinese food in Flushing, is an adventure. I mean, there’s really no need to travel far for good Chinese food, but getting out to a new neighbourhood reminds me of this city’s vastness and that for it to ever be considered home, I should try to acquaint myself with as much of it as possible.

I used to marvel at how different some of the outer borough neighbourhoods felt from Manhattan and Manhattanized Brooklyn, but after this visit, um, adventure, to Sunset Park for the Vietnamese sandwich known as banh mi, I am now reminded just how similar they are. Where once I would walk past the fence of L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst and declare, “I can’t believe we’re still in New York,” I now feel as though we couldn’t be anywhere but New York. So, when I got off the subway on a warm summer Friday afternoon in the unfamiliar neighbourhood south of Greenwood Cemetery, I might have known that I was far from my home, but I was still very much in my city. It’s hard for me to pinpoint why exactly. Row houses of brick, the green globe lights of a subway entrance, worn sidewalks, some form of bodega, someone speaking Spanish, the forced air of a bus’ brakes, the muffled rumble of trains on a track. All things that can be found in other cities for the most part, but somehow when taken as a whole, mean New York to me.

So, lunch at Ba Xuyen was less of an adventure to me because there was no marveling at its same-same-but-different status. Lunch at Ba Xuyen was purely about trying banh mi from a place that many people consider to be the best in the city. I first learned of the small spot from the Instagram account of Andy Ricker, the chef/owner of the Pok Pok group of restaurants. American, yes, but he’s known for having travelled and studied extensively in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam. I felt he was a reliable source. But once only scratching the surface of Google for more info, it was clear that there was a lot of love for these banh mi. Given it is my #summerofsandwiches, I was in.

I eschewed the popular choice of the #1 cold cut combination and went with the #8 grilled pork. It was definitely worth the subway ride (adventure?). The bread was warm, with a crisp crust and a crumb much lighter than a baguette. For the first time in my banh mi experience, the cilantro, picked daikon, and pickled carrots were arranged so expertly that no bite had not enough or too much of these crucial toppings. The pate on the bottom half of the bread was not copious, but there was enough of its richness to suggest that your sandwich was dressed with more than just mayo—which was applied liberally enough so that bites were creamy but not messy. The grilled pork was somewhat more saucy than expected, but not unwelcome, as it was very tender. The last textural contrast was the light touch of crushed peanuts, adding sweetness in addition to crunch.

The internet and social media also espouse Ba Xuyen’s sinh to or thick, fruit milkshakes. I love the mild creaminess of an avocado shake, but I can’t turn down durian, especially when it’s in something sweet as opposed to freshly cut. My gateway into the land of durian was ice cream was when I was in Vietnam, and I’ve come to really appreciate the stinky fruit. I’ve found that in preparations such as ice cream and shakes, there is no tell-tale aroma. It’s highly unlikely that there’s any fresh durian in the shake. But you know, if you know, that a relief from the fragrance regardless of the processed form you may be enjoying is most welcome.

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