If you found this blog by Googling my name or by following sundry noxious links (you know where), please note that all claims that I was fired from my job are 100% false, as are most of the other things written about me. I don't know the people who are libeling me, but it's clear they have some imaginary axe to grind and way too much time.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Eric@Baoguette

I've been in love with banh mi ever since I discovered, at the broke-ass age of 13, that a $2 banh mi was easily the best deal in Chinatown. Pho came much later, as it was a little farther up my nonexistent allowance scale, but when it came, it stuck. I am not Vietnamese, but pho is now my number one comfort food.

I have dreams of running a banh mi truck out of Midtown, saving my fellow worker drones from sterile cafeterias that feature little else but the word "gourmet," a salad bar, and inexplicably long lines. I would serve banh mi and pho as an upgrade of the classic soup-and-sandwich lunch special, and I'd make a killing, because everyone knows Asian is better.

I'm perfectly happy to let Michael Huynh beat me to this fantasy plan, if it means that he'll open a Baoguette in Midtown East before I languish away or leave. After all, his locations have been popping up like mushrooms after a media shower.

To be honest, I was not overly impressed with the pho at Baoguette Cafe on St Marks, where I went with Eric, my stranger for the night. Pho Pasteur taught me a long time ago that the only way to avoid overcooking the ultra-thinly sliced steak is to add it raw after the noodles have already been taken off heat. It is then whisked off and delivered to the table, where the diner uses her chopsticks to poke the meat deep into the steaming broth and hungrily watches it fade from red to pinky-brown before tucking in. (By this time, the whole thing will have cooled to an edible temperature.)

Baoguette didn't employ this method, so the meat verged on chewy. The bowl was also small for $8, and lacked my favorite goodies. I couldn't help but think the dish had been neutered for the St. Marks crowd. Where was the tendon? The tripe? The fatty brisket? I hate to see Asian foods lose their funk and end up pricier.

My companion, Eric, had the bbq chicken banh mi, which looked pretty good. He said the bread was the best part. Eric is originally from LA, and over dinner we discussed the sad state of Mexican food in New York and the dangerous thrill of eating at a "B" or "C" health-code-rated restaurant in California (Ok, that was mostly me talking and him looking shocked that I was still alive). Then he asked me if I'd ever had the famous chicken and rice food cart on 53rd and 6th.

Me: "No, but is it really that different from all those other chicken and rice carts?"
Eric, nodding sagely: "Yes. It is. It absolutely is."
Me: "Guess I'll have to go."
Eric: "It only comes out after 7 at night though. Most people don't realize that. During the day there's another cart there, an impostor cart, and most people assume that's the one."
Me: "Why don't they move to a different location? After-7 in Midtown? Who's going?"
Eric: "I think people stop there on the way home from bars and clubs downtown. People definitely make it a point to stop there."
Me: "So, what if maybe it just tastes better because you're drunk?"
Eric: "Could be, but I doubt it..."

I remain unconvinced. More information is needed.

Back to Baoguette. We shared the Vietnamese crepe, which is hard not to love: a crispy, greasy omelet folded over pork belly, bean sprouts, and shrimp. Douse it with sriracha and you have the perfect drunk munchie, speaking of things tasting better drunk.

But, get this, what really caught me by surprise at Baoguette was the water. Our waitress poured it into clear plastic cups from a clear plastic pitcher, and everything about it looked unremarkable. But it was infused with lime! I don't mean someone had squeezed lime into this water - it wasn't cloudy or the least bit sour. It just tasted like water, but with the fragrance of pure lime zest. I wish I'd gotten a chance to ask how they did it, I bet it'd make another great party trick.

Baoguette is far from ideal, but I recognize the economics of the situation: expansion outside of Chinatown must be driven by the tastes of non-Vietnamese clientèle (who, if they're honest with themselves, can be suspicious of cheap food) and the premium required to engage this clientèle, which would be the overhead costs in choice white neighborhoods like the East Village. If I'm lucky, Zoe the future restaurateur be making these same considerations. In the meantime, Zoe the consumer has little choice, Baoguette having a monopoly in those markets.

So I will continue to eat my way through their noodle soups and banh mis, until the next savvy competitor comes along...

5 comments:

  1. Yum. Pho is absolutely the best hangover cure (better than Menudo, does feeling this way make me a bad Mexican?) And B and C rated eateries have their place in every true foodie's tummy, mine included. I miss the ubiquitousness of B/C rated restaurants along Holt Boulevard, Pomona.

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  2. Hangover cure, cold cure, etc. I do love menudo but pho is gentler when one is feeling fragile.

    I've been craving Tacos Mexicos for aaaggesss.

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  3. Dude. I recently decided I am going to embark on an epic food cart journey, and happened to do some cursory early research on nymag. Discovered a list of the best food carts across the city (from 2007). The chicken and rice cart Eric speaks of squeaks in at #17 (and is one of the few Manhattan-based carts that make the list).

    The info mentioned in that cart's description renders it pretty legendary. Take a gander. Someone's died for this shit.

    I'd be willing to check it out.

    Also, the BBQ chicken Baoguette does make for a satisfying cheap lunch break within walking distance. The gentrification of "ethnic" food continues to be a fascinating subject.

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  4. Dude. I have had similar aspirations but was partly overwhelmed by the sheer number, partly overwhelmed by winter. I'll definitely check out any of the ones you are interested in, particularly the ones in the outer boroughs. No one ever wants to go out there with me.

    Some day I'll sit down and write a proper post on gentrification. Some day.

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