“When’s the last time you traveled to the Upper West Side to sample the latest trendy bánh mì sandwich in town?” I asked my tasting assistant as we tacked along the dark, wet streets around upper Amsterdam Avenue, looking in vain for a place to park. “Never,” was the quick, predictable reply, as we stopped for the second or third time in front of the brightly painted new storefront operation Bánh Vietnamese Shop House. Hardy souls were waiting for their carryout orders on the sidewalk, and we could see shadows of busy tables flickering enticingly behind the blurry outdoor-dining windows. “Find a table outside, then order all the sandwiches on the menu, all of the soups, and anything with the word pork or rice noodle attached to it,” I cried, before dropping off my now slightly alarmed assistant and continuing on my possibly doomed quest for a parking spot.
When I finally returned, 20 or so minutes later, our little table in the corner of the icy dining hut was set with jumbles of plates and steamy bowls of soup as if for a small streetside banquet in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. There were fresh-made summer rolls stuffed with shrimp and platters of properly loose, crispy cha gio pork spring rolls plated with fronds of crisp green lettuce and sprigs of mint. There were tangles of rice noodles topped with drifts of lettuce, chopped coriander, and grilled beef and dark bowls of southern-style pho with ribbons of fillet and brisket swirling in their dark, steamy depths. There were several kinds of bánh mì on the table (and several more rumored to be on the way), along with a Frisbee-size street-food delicacy from central Vietnam called bánh dap, layered with rolled rice, sesame crackers, and a variety of other toppings.
These stout Vietnamese classics are the work of owners John Nguyen and Nhu Ton, who began Bánh as a pop-up this summer and, after being overrun with customers (and popular feedback), reopened as a permanent brick-and-mortar establishment in mid-January. They’re veterans of the excellent, though star-crossed, Hanoi House in the East Village, and they run the Bronx Vietnamese destination Còm Tam Ninh-Kieu. Like those operations, the emphasis is on the kind of no-frills cooking that you’d see in the better, more traditional kitchens back home, like servings of gently caramelized pork belly (com thit kho), which my tasting assistant and I devoured with a small mountain of rice on the side, and the delicious beef pho, which filled our little corner of the dining hut with the deeply reviving smells of steamy bone broth mingled with cinnamon and clove.
“I’m breaking my Keto diet for this!” cried my increasingly enthused and rambunctious taster as he grappled with one of the bánh mìs, which you can get with nuggets of fried chicken or char-fired barbecue pork or stuffed in the traditional manner with wheels of ham and homemade pâté. Because of the lateness of the hour, the kitchen was out of grilled pork, but I’ll be making the trek back uptown for a second taste of the excellent grilled steak sandwich, which was caramelized, like the pork belly, marinated in plenty of soy and lemongrass, then sizzled, for good measure, in gouts of butter. I’ll be back, also, for that fresser favorite, pho dac biet, which the kitchen was out of as well and which, for the record, is beef pho with the added pleasures of soft, faintly jellied beef tendon and plenty of tripe. I’ll be back for the lone house dessert, too, which, according to our server, who was from Hanoi, is a wedge of that southern Vietnamese specialty cassava cake served with a cooling dollop of yogurt on top.