And now for something completely different — Bánh mì in… Boston? (part 1 of 1): New Saigon Sandwich, Mei Sum, Momogoose, 163

This is an offshoot of the “Bánh mì in Louisville” series (see parts 1 and 2). I may not be in Louisville right now, but the quest for the perfect sandwich never stops. I was downtown near Boston Common, so I stumbled on over to Chinatown to see, of course, if there was any Vietnamese sandwich shop. And sure enough, I found the New Saigon Sandwich, a tiny hole-in-the-wall with an auspiciously focused name. I went back to Chinatown a few more times after I got my bike. Hunting down good sandwiches in Boston isn’t like Louisville, where you have to pedal all over Iroquois and even then you miss some out east. Pretty much every sandwich joint (side note: Boston has places that specialize in bánh mì, not just Vietnamese restaurants that serve it) is within a 3-block radius of Washington and Beach, so I rolled on back to visit, in order, Mei Sum and 163. I also took a short break and stayed on the Cambridge side of the river to sample the sandwiches at the local food truck Momogoose.

[Photo of a sandwich from New Saigon Sandwich]New Saigon Sandwich (696 Washington Street) has a menu beyond sandwiches, but pretty much all of the orders at this take-out-only dive were for the sandwiches, and their service area was geared towards sandwiches: think of the glass-fronted salad-bar-like area full of fixings they assemble your sandwich on at, say, Subway or Quizno’s, and replace the sad lettuce and tomatoes and dressing with cucumber and daikon and a deep well of nuoc cham, and you’ve got the service area at New Saigon, which can dish up any of 8 different bánh mì: cold cut (thịt nguội), shredded pork (bì), teriyaki beef, barbecue beef (thịt bò nướng, presumably), teriyaki chicken, tofu, curry chicken, and xíu mại meatball. Service is snappy to the point of being perfunctory: have your $3.25 in hand when you order, because there’s a line.

All in all, New Saigon seems more like a factory than an artisanal sandwich workshop, but y’know what? Assembly line production works for a cold sandwich, and the New Saigon makes good. Their sandwiches burst with crispness, from the snap of the baguette to the very generous carrot-daikon mix and thick cucumber wedges which bulk it up, and is given a burst of springtime freshness by the cilantro and, in a departure from the formula, a generous helping of coarse-chopped scallions. The meat almost seems like an afterthought, and admittedly there’s not a fabulous amount, nor an extraordinary quality of meat (I, following my usual pattern, opted for the stringy and nutty bì), but it’s adequate enough and the other fixings carry the day quite brilliantly. A nice soaking of nuoc cham and brushing of mayo helps to keep the whole thing from being dry, and it’s an extremely pleasant summer snack. Add that to the fact that they’ve figured out how to do in under a minute, on a cramped prep area, what an awful lot of places make a 10-minute ordeal, and you pretty much have something you can put on wheels and make my dream food truck (yes, I do harp on the idea of a bánh mì truck, because it’s a good idea, damnit).

[Photo of a sandwich from Mei Sum]Mei Sum (36 Beach Street) is a dingy little Chinese bakery with a sideline in bánh mì. It has that divey never-quite-organized look with various boxes stacked all over the place and no menu, and it has about four tiny tables which are perpetually occupied by elderly Chinese men. They have only three varieties of sandwich: cold pork (thịt nguội), beef (thịt bò nướng, probably), and tofu. I ordered the pork, not sure if it was a nguôi or a nướng or even a bí. At any rate, it was at the magical price point of $3.00.

They showed some care with the assembly, toasting the roll both before and after spreading on the mayo. It was generously laden with pâté and pork cold-cuts; this is one of the meatier bánh mì I’ve seen in a while. They had definitely decided on a niche for themselves with some of their flavor choices: the sandwich was rather dominated by the sharp pâté and by the fresh onions on top. The chiles used were tiny, which I half expected to be brutal, but they weren’t that spicy. In other elements it was more what I was accustomed to: shredded carrots and pickled onion, ample cilantro, and a nice generous wedge of cucumber. It didn’t feel dry, but I didn’t get a fresh moist feel from mayo or fish sauce either. They kind of cheated on the moisture issue, though, because I didn’t get a real sense of substantiality from the baguette, which is often what leaves one’s mouth feeling dry. The roll was soft, without the crisp snap, or the squishproof bulk, of a decent sandwich roll; the sides caved in alarmingly when I bit into it. On this front I judged it not merely as different, but as actually inferior.

I had high hopes for Mei Sum (it has very good reviews), but was thrown off by two things: as mentioned above, the roll wasn’t nearly assertive enough, and in addition, the flavor balance was all off, which may have been a problem particular to the thịt nguội, or even to this particular thịt nguội. There was a lot of pâté on it, and a little goes a long way there.

[Photo of a sandwich from Momogoose]Momogoose Asian Bistro (20 Carleton Street, usually) is an exemplar of that type which I ardently wish were more common: it’s a food truck that serves bánh mì. Not a food truck that only serves or even specializes in sandwiches, since they have a dizzying array of pan-Asian noodle and rice dishes, but, still, the concept is sound. This truck is apparently the same institution as the food truck I knew, in my time at MIT, as “Goosebeary’s”, which was beloved for their affordable Chinese food and infamous for their part in the Great Dysentery Epidemics of 1997 and 2001. They have pork (bánh mì sườn nướng) and beef (incongruously labeled, in Pan-Asian style, as bánh mì bulgogi) for $5.00 each, chicken (gà nướng) for $4.50, and a vegan tofu or grilled vegetable sandwich for $4.00. I went with the pork and was mildly dismayed to see then pull a prefabricated, half-foil-wrapped sandwich off a rack.

My first impression, one that did not diminish on biting in and getting a cross-sectional view, was that it was awfully carrot-intensive. In addition to being carrot-intensive, it was the most meat-heavy sandwich I’ve had since my trip to Cafe Mimosa. So between carrots and meat, there simply wasn’t room to really bring out Viet flavor, particularly since, the name notwithstanding, the pork didn’t have the lemongrass-and-fish-sauce intensity I expect from Vietnamese grilled pork. There were some sparing cilantro leaves and a hint of mayo, and little else of what I usually expect: no daikon, no onion.

Overall, as the above paragraph might suggest, I wasn’t favorably impressed with the flavorfulness of this particular preparation; I’ve had considerably less bland sandwiches from institutions that cater to a much less adventurous crowd. I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t call some attention to two things which were rather good: first, the jalapeños provided a good hint of spice without too much fireiness, which was a good, light touch, and second, the bread actually had the right snap and the right sponginess, which was extra-surprising given that the prefab sandwiches give the filling plenty of opportunity to wreak havoc on the bread’s consistency.

If you’re on MIT’s campus or near Kendall Square and truly desperate for a quick bánh mì, Momogoose will give you something pretty close to what you want, but if you have time and transport, get down to Chinatown for the real deal at close to half the price.

[Photo of a sandwich from 163]163 Vietnamese Sandwiches (66 Harrison Avenue) is another tiny dingy Chinatown dive. Unlike many of the others, it actually has a few free tables. They do a lively “lunch box” service with prepackaged cold vermicelli and rice and suchlike that looked pretty good, but I was of course there for the sandwiches. They had five basic varieties: cold cut (thịt nguội), shredded pork (bì), BBQ beef (thịt bò nướng), curry chicken, and BBQ chicken; they also had vegetarian sandwiches with either tofu of fake meat, and with soy sauce instead of fish sauce, so they’re dietary-restriction friendly. My priority is always the bì when available, so that’s what I got. They weren’t quite as efficient as the New Saigon Sandwich in preparing my order, but they were certainly on the ball and got it done quick, and at the eminently reasonably price point of $3.00.

This sandwich succeeded on many fronts. The cilantro was plentiful and fresh, and the cucumber was a substantial seedless spear. Onions, which are apparently a standard element of Boston-style bánh mì, appears as a tangle of fish-sauce-dampened scallion in among the meat. The carrots and daikon were sharply flavorful and present in the right quantities. The bread was up to the standard set by New Saigon, with a good combination of crusty exterior and spongy interior, although the cut in my particular roll was a bit crooked. The bì seemed to me to be a bit lacking in nuttiness, but that can honestly be chalked up to stylistic differences, since I think I might like mine a bit more dusty than is the norm. But all of this is ignoring the most significant element of this sandwich, which was the condiments.

Most of the time, the fish sauce and mayo are a fairly light undertone; not so much with 163’s product. My sandwich featured a thick smear of sweet, fishy mayonnaise its whole length, which I fear veered dangerously close to overwhelming and was already (thanks to the sweetness of both nuoc cham and kewpie mayonnaise) on the wrong side of cloying. I appreciate the effort to keep the bread from oversetting the moisture level and producing too dry a sandwich, but I think the flavors introduced here were just too strong to be provided so generously.

Black Swan

[Screenshot]Here we have a cautionary tale about the dangers of adults living with their parents and not getting off enough. Or, more properly, a screwed up film about screwed-up people. Mostly just one screwed-up person, really, but I can’t help but think that most of Nina’s troubles come from living with her mother in a tiny New York apartment. It should probably come as no surprise, just based on Aranofsky’s track record, that this is psychologically pretty twisted: pretty much always his protagonists are horribly conflicted and tortured and ultimately self-destructive. Plotwise, this is kind of more of the same only with more enablers: the protagonists of Pi and The Fountain mostly went out and got headfucked while cooped up alone.

Even though the plot is arguably the same old stuff, it certainly feels much more sweeping in scope than Pi, and there’s good use of the ensemble cast, particularly Mila Kunis, who strikes a good note of heisenmalice *. This is a busy film full of interesting foils for Natalie Portman to bounce off of, some more subtly than others: Cassel and Hershey play pretty two-dimensional and cliched roles, but Kunis is if not subtle at least interesting, and Winona Ryder presents a more nuanced (if only for being largely offstage) perspective on the ephemerality of stardom.

Aronofsky’s cinematic aesthetic has always had a certain horrific beauty to it (less so in Pi, which was kinda self-consciously lo-fi), and on this front Black Swan didn’t disappoint. There’s a cold beauty pretty much throughout in the camerawork and scene-setting, a sense of loneliness and isolation pervading the scenes through cinematography and perhaps some audio trickery.

All in all, this film was probably worth the hype. I certainly found it haunting and creepy and affecting. Not exactly good medicine for the brain, but it gets lots of points for doing what it does so effectively. If you like ballet and want to continue liking ballet, you might want to watch that series about the girl who sometimes turns into a duck instead. But if you want a dark story about crazy people in the arts, this one’s for you.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

* It seems acceptable these days to use “heisen-” where a few years ago one might have said “quantum” and a few decades ago one might have merely used “uncertain”. But mostly I just like the word “heisenmalice”. Return to text

Head

[Screenshot]The Monkees were kind of like the Bee Gees in reverse. The Bee Gees started their career as a respectable band producing work with artistic merit that nobody remembers anymore, and then they had a #1 disco hit and became a big joke. The Monkees started as a joke, a blatant spoofy cash-in on Beatlemania, dreamed up by marketing executives and calculated to please. And then, as their popularity faded, they rebelled against their chosen role and ended their career in popular obscurity but with a certain amount of critical admiration. I’ll admit I knew pretty much nothing about this period of the Monkees’ career except that it existed. But the most conspicuously and aggressively independent act of the Monkees’ ephemeral existence was probably this surreal and largely incomprehensible feature-length film.

It is not actually all that good a film, like so many works of late-60s surrealism. It features cameos by a bewildering array of cultural figures from Frank Zappa to Sonny Liston to Annette Funicello, and it’s co-produced by Jack Nicholson (with the Monkees’ original progenitor, Bob Rafelson), but somehow all of this talent doesn’t end up giving the film any sense of direction. It’s choppy and confusing, with apparently unrelated scenes which don’t seem to work towards anything in particular. There are antiwar bits and anticommercial bits and self-mocking bits and long segments which don’t seem to have a purpose at all. As a cultural artifact it’s not bad, since it’s a good portrait of how attitudes had rapidly changed both towards and among the picture-perfect and manufactured darlings of the British Invasion, but it’s very difficult to enjoy on its own terms.

There’s also a lot of musical numbers, of varying quality both musically and cinematically. Probably the most notable song, and the most striking visual effect in the film, is “Daddy’s Song”. Seriously, if you’re interested in Head, save yourself 86 minutes and just watch that 4 minute clip. It’s the best song in the film together with the best visual effects in the film, and at the end we get to see Frank Zappa deadpan his way through a cameo and to top things off we get some utterly unnecessary weirdness. The rest of the movie is basically the same kind of thing only not as good.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.