In suburbia’s conquest of New York, Subway and Quizno’s lead the culinary front, spreading almost as rapidly as Starbucks. But a quiet band of outsiders is fighting the good food fight, on the fringes. These are the shops that specialize in bánh mì, the French-accented Vietnamese sandwich that inspires cultish devotion among its fans (see The Porkchop Express). The latest reinforcements have risen up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Boerum Hill. First there was Hanco’s last spring, and now, just around the corner, there’s Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches.
Many are already familiar with Nicky’s from its popular parent location in the East Village, on 2nd Street and Avenue A. And hardcore devotees know that this mini-chain is family operated. Its progenitor was grandfather Nin Van Dang, who started the fabled An Dong, a bánh mì temple that was located in that hotbed of bánh mì, Sunset Park. So there was a little anxiety about whether this new Nicky’s would water down its crusty heroes for the gentrified location. There are some unwelcome tweaks here: The meat is not as plentiful as purists might like. Instead of daikon there’s cucumber, and the carrot is not pickled but fresh. The roll is not adequately toasted.
Nevertheless the “Classic Vietnamese Sandwich” (as its billed on the menu, $3.95) delivers an impressive bang. In fact, if you ask for “spicy,” jalapeno slices lace the interior and make for a tongue-numbing experience. The chiles can overwhelm the other tastes. One suggestion: ask for them, but pull them off. Only a whisper of their flavor will remain, like the vermouth in a dry martini. This keeps the focus on the heart of the sandwich—the super porky filling. First there are thin slices of Vietnamese ham (like Canadian bacon but springier and twangier) and then crumbles of sweet anise-spiked ground pork. Smeared on the bread’s insides like a condiment is the pièce de résistance—a light layer of pâté. This is what makes this hero great. It’s like a dark secret, hidden at the center. All the other flavors smack you immediately, but what lingers minutes later in your mouth is the memory of the meat’s musky scent. You might need a cold shower at this point, or a cigarette.