Baoguette Cafe (37 St. Marks Place)
There is something so freeing about eating in the East Village, amidst the ink shops, noodle shops, and record stores of St. Marks Place. It's a no frills atmosphere where everyone wears what they want, and you just sort of get the feeling that dining here is really just about the food. Shops and eateries are tucked under stoops, zigzagging in every direction just like the hallways and rooms of the tenement housing, and everything other than the architecture is pretty straightforward.
When a dear friend of mine asked me to join for his lunch break in the Village, I was excited. He's definitely more of a cook-at-home guy, and a pretty fantastic home chef. That means that he doesn't research restaurants as I obsessively do, but when he tries something he really enjoys, he's eager to share it. "What's the name of this restaurant you're dragging me to?" I asked as we walked past Astor Place. "Oh, I don't know... I just know where it is... but you'll like it." He knows if he enjoys it, I almost always do, too...
Baoguette Cafe is just one of several banh mi shops now scattered throughout the city by husband-wife restaurateur team Michael "Bao" Hyunh and Thao Nguyen. Instead of a traditional banh mi bun (a blend of rice and wheat flours), however, they use French-style baguettes from Tom Cat Bakery, adding not only a pun, but a different crunch and texture to the popular Vietnamese sandwich.
Small plates are $4-$9 and range from a green papaya salad, to spring rolls and a pan-fried radish cake. We shared the corn on the cob, which came with two halved ears, drizzled with scallion oil, and sprinkled with chili salt and dried shrimp. The juicy, buttery kernels exploded with flavor, almost reminiscent of a spicy bloody mary salt.
The classic banh mi is built with a housemade pate and pork liver terrine (spread across the bread like a tapenade), with smoked pork, cilantro, pickled daikon, carrots, cucumber, and jalapeño. They even offer a 'sloppy bao' with spicy red curry beef, green mango, basil, and lemongrass. But we opted for the spicy catfish banh mi, piled with turmeric roasted Vietnamese catfish, cucumber relish, pickled red onions, and honey mustard aioli. For $7.50 this baoguette was an explosion of flavors, textures, and temperatures, crunchy and soft, dry and slippery, spicy and sweet, warm and chilled. It's pretty easy to see why this sandwich (albeit a stray from the traditional version) has gained such popularity transitioning from Korean street food to an NYC sandwich shop. It was uniquely tasty.
FUN FACT: The Oxford English Dictionary recently added the definition of banh mi, along with California Roll, muffin top (both food & fashion terms), as well as OMG, LOL, and FYI.
Though Baoguette offers four versions of the traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup, Pho, I went for the B'un Bo. An enormous bowl of chilled, tender rice noodles arrived, decorated with stir-fried lemon grass beef bursting with flavor, a cucumber herb salad, crushed peanuts, and lime fish sauce. Again, a beautiful combination of textures, flavors, and temperatures elevated rather simple ingredients to what resulted in an exciting and flavorsome dish, generously portioned at $9.
Baoguette offers Mash fruit drinks, Boylan's soda, and Vietnamese iced espresso with condensed milk. Seating is limited, with extremely friendly service. A beggar stood by our table outside the window gesturing to us to give him food. Despite the glass between us, he was only about two feet from our table, and momentarily froze conversation. The cashier quickly grabbed a baguette, walked outside, and offered him the bread, asking gently if he would continue down the sidewalk. It was a gracious way to take care of both him and the customers. I will most definitely be returning.