Battle of the Banh Mi
Earlier this summer, thanks to Hanco's, a new Vietnamese sandwich shop located blocks from our apartment, Daniel and I became obsessed with banh mi. When Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches opened a few weeks ago on Atlantic Avenue, also within blocks of our apartment, we became overwhelmed by all our options. To help us figure out which place serves the best sandwich, we decided to have our very own Battle of the Banh Mi!
Sometimes referred to as a Vietnamese sub, these French-inspired sandwiches are made by stuffing mini baguettes with pickled carrot, cucumber, daikon, cilantro and some type of meat, the most popular choices being Vietnamese paté, shredded chicken or marinated pork. For those who like their food with a little heat, banh mi should be eaten with some squirts of tongue-tingling sriracha sauce.
Dressed appropriately in loose fitting clothes, we began the battle at Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches. Located on bustling Atlantic Avenue, Nicky’s is bright and airy with orange colored walls, decorative art, warm lighting and a soothing sound system.
When we arrived, there were a few people finishing their last bites of banh mi, but just minutes after we placed our order for one classic and one pork chop sandwich, the place became packed.
We waited a few minutes at a cozy corner table before two sandwiches stuffed with thick carrot strands, a handful of cilantro, and extra crunchy cucumbers arrived on simple ceramic plates. The mini baguettes were both warm and crackly.
We started with the pork chop sandwich which contained roasted pieces of pork that were sweet, fatty, and very reminiscent of the spare ribs I loved to gnaw on as a kid whenever my family ordered Chinese food. We had ordered both of our sandwiches spicy (which I think is a must if you want to fully appreciate the cooling effects of the cilantro and vegetables), though it wasn’t until I reached the end of my first half that I discovered a few thick rounds of jalapeno. Happy to see them, but wondering why they took so long to show up, I took one final big bite, my lips burning as I chewed.
Next came the classic, the most traditional but also adventurous offering on the five sandwich menu. Stuffed wtih paté, Vietnamese ham, roasted ground pork, and the requisite pickled carrots, cucumber, cilantro and mayo, the whole package was a bit too pungent, the taste of the Vietnamese paté (which I soon found out is actually pork liver) overpowering all of the other flavors. Daniel liked the classic more than I did, but he was disappointed by the underwhelming ground pork, and could barely taste any of the Vietnamese ham.
Already full after one banh mi each (the amount we usually have on normal outings), we walked the six or so blocks over to Bergen Street, where Hanco's is located.
Hanco's is slightly smaller than Nicky’s and though there are a handful of tables, the space isn’t quite as cozy. It's a bit stuffy as well with a strong smell of Vietnamese sandwiches which won’t bother you if you’re just running in and out, but eating there would be more pleasant with an airier ambiance. Luckily, the one outdoor table was available, so we settled in there before our sandwiches, served on paper plates, were ready.
The bread was warm and toasty with a thin layer of butter on each half. Though the vegetables didn't seem as fresh as the ones at Nicky's, their pickled flavor was much more apparent, adding a sweet, tangy flavor to each bite.
Daniel and I both agreed that Hanco's serves a better classic sandwich, perhaps because each type of meat was easily distinguishable and nicely seasoned. I didn’t find the Vietnamese paté to be nearly as strong, and Daniel was happy that the ground pork had no problem standing up to the more powerful flavors.
As for the pork chop sandwich, I preferred the one at Hanco's, the pieces of meat bigger with less fat. Daniel thought the pork at Nicky's was actually lighter and he felt they stuffed their sandwiches with more of it.
We both agreed that Hanco's used more mayonnaise on their sandwiches, which they mixed with sriracha sauce, helping to deliver heat bite by bite (unlike Nicky's where it's dramatically unleashed at the very end). The extra mayo does make their banh mi a bit heavy, so I would prefer a little less, but the combination of condiments did keep the sandwich from becoming dry.
Once we'd finished our final two spicy sandwiches, we compared notes and decided that Hanco's was the winner of the banh mi battle -- but just by a pig's nose, as Daniel insisted I mention (is that even a saying?). Even though it's located a few doors down from the Bergen Street subway station (extra convenient for take-out right after work), it's still a bit off the beaten path; Nicky's is more well known due to another location on the Lower East Side. And as for the slightly stuffy and smaller setting? We feel that when you're paying $4.25 for a meal, you shouldn't expect much ambiance any way.
85 Bergen Street
Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches
311 Atlantic Avenue