Right before I went to New York last week, I asked people for restaurant recommendations. Cathy of Gastronomy Blog promptly responded and suggested that I try the nouveau Vietnamese banh mi at Xie Xie — a place that describes itself as an "Exclusive New York Asian Fast Food Restaurant Specializing in Tasty Sandwiches." On my first day there, I walked uptown from Chelsey and picked up a to-go order of their Cha Ca La Vong (fish with turmeric and dill) and Vietnamese beef sandwiches. It was the perfect lunch for me to share with a Viet friend, Holly, with whom I had a business lunch meeting.
New York restaurants are often like jewel boxes – tiny. Xie Xie was bustling at lunch, their two sandwich cooks working steadily and rapidly to make each sandwich to order. They were a bit slow as they’re meticulous with reheating the bread for every sandwich, so I had lots of time to observe. Xie Xie (which means thank you in Mandarin Chinese) doesn’t call their Vietnamese sandwiches banh mi and they really are not. What we typically think of as banh mi — a light baguette filled with pickled daikon and carrot, cucumber, cilantro, chiles, mayonnaise, soy sauce and some kind of protein — wasn’t what they made here. The menu also had pulled pork stuffed into steamed Chinese buns and a “thousand year-old” ice cream sandwich. Very clever and cute.
Xie Xie was packed at lunch with people placing orders for the $8 sandwiches and then coming back up to the counter and ordering more sandwiches. Most of those repeat orders came from guys who lunched and drank beer. The sandwiches themselves are double the price of what you’d get at a Viet spots in Chinatown. But this was far away from Chinatown and the décor evoked the ultra hip and happening.
From 44th and 9th Avenue, I quickly walked with my warm sandwiches and house salad with yuzu dressing to Holly’s office on Madison at 4th Avenue. It was a fast 20-minutes and I opened up the sandwiches as soon as I arrived. Holly and I stared at the sandwiches, and she said, “This is Vietnamese banh mi?”
“Well they’re supposed to be but I’m not sure,” I responded. The Xie Xie sandwiches didn’t survive my walk well in looks (photo at the top), but we dove in as we were starving. The fish sandwich had gotten a bit chewy, having steamed up under its thick wax paper wrapping. It didn’t taste fabulous but we’d eaten it under unfair circumstance. Xie Xie’s cha ca la vong sandwich (a riff on cha ca La Vong, a popular Hanoi rendition of grilled fish dish bathed in dill and scallion and served with rice noodles lettuce, herbs, and a pungent-tart fermented shrimp sauce) should be eaten fresh as the fish is reheated in a toaster oven and then slid into the warm bread. I didn’t care for the nearly florescent onion jam as it was on the sweet side. A little scallion oil would have enriched the baguette and put the sandwich closer to its original inspiration. Holly didn’t like it and I was ambivalent though willing to give it another try, but not as takeaway.
The beef sandwich featured a lovely toasted hamburger bun, but the chunks of dryish beef inside were hard to eat. The cute zig zags of “kimchi” carrots were crunchy and didn’t do much to help the beef. “Kimchi” and Korean food are hot subjects these days, especially in New York where David Chang and his Momofuku restaurants are pushing the boundaries on modern Asian cooking. Chang’s food at Momofuku is tasty fare that’s perfect for the bar scene that he cultivates. Xie Xie’s beef sandwich was not great tasting and I don’t know if the slight 5-spice, star anise edge was suppose to make the beef Vietnamese. I didn’t get it and it seemed like a mish mash of a sandwich.
After tasting Xie Xie’s Vietnamese sandwiches, I’m not eager to return on my next trip. New York is one of the world’s premiere culinary incubators and I applaud the Big Apple’s efforts to push Vietnamese food to new frontiers. But with regard to Xie Xie, my gut tells me that Xie Xie should put less focus on hitting all the hot and popular Asian food trends. That marketing approach sets up people’s expectations and makes it harder for an eatery to satisfy customers well. It’s easier to say “xie xie” to express thanks for really tasty food.
If you tried Xie Xie's Vietnamese sandwiches, share your thoughts! Or maybe you've tried other new/modern/innovative versions of Vietnamese banh mi?
P.S. The Cubano pressed sandwiches from Cafe Havana on 8th (at 19th) traveled extremely well!