after dinner sneeze

a lot of g says, t says

Chifa and Sampan: Battle Pork Banh Mi

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t says: On Saturday, g and I had a hankering for Sampan’s Pork Banh Mi.  By the way, it has come to our attention that although Sampan spells it “Bahn”, it might actually be “Banh” – so we apologize for mis-spelling it and will slowly go back through our old posts to fix it.  Regardless of how it’s spelled, we wanted it again, as we’ve had it twice so far <#1, #2>, and were happy both times (although we liked it better the first time).  Then I remembered that Chifa also has this  sandwich on their menu; we’ve never had it, but it’s Jose Garces – could his be as equally as awesome?  We felt the storm clouds gathering, casting thick shadows on the grassy field upon which an epic battle was to take place … could Iron Chef Garces beat out Challenger Michael Schulson in Battle Pork Banh Mi?  Furthermore, because Chifa’s more known for its Bao buns (steamed buns with pork belly), should that dish also be taken into consideration – perhaps as an exhibition match?  Thus, we devised a pig-centric three-way battle.  Here we go …

Chifa: 4/2010, Saturday 6pm, Party of 2.  We decided to go to Chifa first.  We did this for a couple of reasons.  The first is that clearly Chifa was going to be the challenger with regard to the sandwich, as we knew that we liked Sampan’s already; Chifa deserved the advantage of being eaten while we were the most hungry.  Furthermore, we wanted to end up at Sampan because it was closer to home (thus a shorter distance to walk afterward on a full stomach) and because if we were still hungry, we knew there were plenty of other delightful items on Sampan’s menu (overall, we and our wallets liked dinners at Sampan more than those we had at Chifa).

We were seated promptly (without a reservation) and we apologized in advance to our waitress that we wouldn’t be ordering a lot as we were doing a pork banh mi face-off.  She seemed amused by and was happy to entertain our ridiculosity.  We ended up ordering a spicy margarita, the pork belly bao buns (Chifa’s signature dish), and the pork banh mi (which apparently was added to the menu around January).

The first dish that was brought out was complimentary “bread”.  When it first hit the table, I was highly suspicious.  I didn’t recall them having a bread basket the last times we went.  In the back of my mind, I reasoned that it was obviously the chef’s attempt to fill us up so that by the time we got to Sampan, we’d be too full to eat.  Obviously, I was too smart for him/her.  Well, whatever the reason/delusion, that was some fine bread.  These were the size/shape of the steamed buns, except that they had more of the baked-brown look with the smell of cheese.  They were served with a spreadable brown spicy sauce.  When I bit into it, the first thing I noticed wasn’t a taste, rather, a texture; it reminded me of slightly undercooked Pillsbury dough.  Sounds gross?  Nope.  It brought back childhood memories of home baking experiments – awesome!  The bread was savory and soft and warm and gooey, and when coupled with the spicy sauce, it was a flavorful way to start our meal.  I eventually reasoned that this obviously must not be the chef’s intention to sabotage our perception of Sampan’s food, as to do that, he would have had to given us more than four of these … because if there were more, we would have definitely eaten them all throughout the course of the meal (our other dishes had some sauce “smears” on the plates that we would have also sopped up with the bread).

The bao buns were next.  You know – that Jose Garces is always so slick with presentation.  I just don’t know how you can make pale-looking buns and brown-colored meat look that appetizing on a plate, but he [or whoever is actually in the kitchen constructing it] does it superbly – it looks like it’s ready for a photo shoot.  Of course, I had to re-structure the components so that it could be handled and eaten more easily (a pretty stack isn’t always the easiest-to-eat), but I appreciated the effort to appeal to my eyes.  Like my eyes, my mouth also appreciated the buns immensely.  The very tender pork belly screamed sweet and savory.  The daikon and carrot added some salty sour.  Mix all of those with the texture of the light, fluffy, pillow-y bun and it was even better than the first times we went!  I did notice, however, that the pieces of meat I had weren’t as fatty as pork belly can be – which is good or bad depending on your stance (I kinda like the fat).  In any case, these really make me want to taste Momofuku’s …

The pork banh mi came out last.  Although of a similar size, Garces’s sandwich isn’t wrapped in craft paper like Sampan, rather, is presented naked, cut in half, and accompanied by yet another sauce smear.  The first thing I noticed was that the bread looked particularly delicious – it appeared golden brown, crusty, and not the least bit squished from cutting.  And you know what – that was some good bread, with an awesome outside crust that resembling a Tony Luke’s cheese steak.  As soon as my teeth broke past the bread, I inhaled a breath of vegetable/herb freshness – there was cucumber and carrot with some mint and cilantro.  As my teeth chewed on the pork pieces (the waitress said it was pork shoulder), it released sweet, but was quickly followed by another salty, savory, mushy-textured experience: the pate!  Apparently Jose likes to add pate to the sandwich, which was only so-so in terms of taste (the flavor of the pate is kind of muted versus the rest of the ingredients in the sandwich, so I didn’t want it to dominate).  Furthermore, with later bites, I found that it’d aid the pork in sliding out the back of the sandwich as I chomped on the bread by acting as a lubricant – that was annoying.  Finally, upon swallowing, I noticed a bit of heat.  At first, I thought it was the spicy margarita, but it was not; sliced jalapenos were hidden among the greens.  The heat was nice just so long as you didn’t happen to get an overwhelming piece of chile.  Overall, the sandwich was good – the vegetables were very bold and up front, the bread and sauce were excellent, and the meat was tender.  I deduct points for the pate (just leave it out!) and too little sauce (put it on my sandwich, not a smear on my plate).  Not bad a bad showing …

After concluding these tastings, we paid our bill and walked over to Sampan.  I was no longer “hungry” but “I could eat” …

Sampan: 4/2010, Saturday 7pm, Party of 2.  We were seated promptly at the “bar” the faces the open kitchen.  This time we were further from the salamanders, and closer to the appetizer prep stations.  As we sat, we watched a pork banh mi being made – it looked simple enough – take some bread, slice it, add some sauce, add the meat, add the veggies, add the herbs, sprinkle some ?nuts? on top, wrap it up, and send it out.  As we watched this one being made, we placed our order, and lo and behold, the one we had just watched was delivered to our table!  It was like they were expecting us!  I guess the reality is that they probably always have one ready to go because they have to make it so often …

First things first – how’d it look?  Well, it was wrapped in paper emblazoned with “Sampan” … I kind of like the old school craft paper they had used the very first time we went.  Furthermore, gone was the blue painter’s tape – they were now using masking tape.  Once again – give me the blue painter’s tape!  I don’t like change, damnit!

I opened up the paper and saw our victim.  While it looked similar to Chifa’s, the bread definitely appeared softer – likely because there was some squishing in the wrapping process and the warmth from the meat was softening the bread.  To be honest – I liked the bread at Chifa better because I like a nice hard outer crust – but if you want soft, then Sampan is the way to go.  But when it comes to flavor, there’s a slightly different story …  Sampan’s veggies and herbs and meat didn’t give me clear distinct notes, rather, a single harmonious flavor, including sour and sweet from the pickled vegetables, light heat from the sauce, a zing from the cilantro, and savory from the pork.  Yes, all the flavor components were the same as in Chifa, but they all worked together at once – there weren’t phases of evolving flavors, rather, one big flavor up front that eventually gave way to the individual components later on, after you swallowed.  It was so good.

After some thought, g and I felt that it was definitely better this time than at our last Sampan visit (and almost as good as our first).  Why?  Well, as we watched from our seat, we realized that the woman making the sandwich with “Fernandez” embroidered on her coat did an excellent job ensuring the right veggie:herb:meat:sauce ratio; this time was near perfect (maybe a little less sauce as our sandwich was a little drippy towards the end), but last time there just wasn’t enough meat.  Thank you Chef Fernandez!  You the woman!

We concluded our meal at Sampan with dessert – the chocolate banana “tart” in which a chocolate crust filled with bananas that were bruleed.  It was an excellent idea, but there were some flaws in execution.  The torch definitely burnt some of the exposed crust, so after the first accidental taste of burnt-bitterness (it’s hard to see the burnt parts as the chocolate crust was a dark brown), we had to seek out and remove the burnt areas.  Also, there could have been some other sauce or ganache or something to bring together the mushy bananas (they were mushy in a good way!) and the firm, somewhat dry, crust.  The waitress did recommend the ice cream to go with this dessert when we ordered, but we ignored her, and now we wished we hadn’t.  Like each time we’ve been to Sampan, the desserts are theoretically great, but taste only “good” – int his case, it wasn’t quite good enough to order again (but they keep rotating the dessert menu, so I’m sure I’ll find something new to order next time).

Conclusions:  Ok – super long post – let’s summarize …

1)  I prefer Sampan’s pork banh mi to Chifa’s primarily because of the bold, harmonious flavor that hit you from the very beginning.  While Chifa did have superior bread and more of a “freshness”, the pate subtracted from the dish, and perhaps adding more sauce and allowing the ingredients a chance to meld together (perhaps wrapped in some kraft paper with blue painters’ tape?) would help it?

2)  Chifa’s pork buns, however, are superior to Chifa’s banh mi – the way the flavors are integrated makes this dish hit you with flavor the same way Sampan’s bhan mi hits you – you get a nice strong, combined flavor up front that eventually gives way to subtler flavors later.

3)  Sampan’s banh mi vs. Chifa’s buns … gee … that’s really close …  I think it’d have to come down to what kind of mood you’re in … do you want bread or buns?  Ceviche (Chifa) or Brussels sprouts (Sampan)?  Personally, I think that Sampan might have the edge because the rest of the menu (or at least, the things we like to eat) are priced more aggressively.  We only wish they could execute the desserts a little better – there’s untapped potential there …

Epilogue:  As we got up to leave Sampan, g tried to direct my attention to the kitchen.  Eventually, she succeeded in doing so (I’m not too good with picking up on her non-verbal signals, and she didn’t want to say aloud, “Hey – look at the guy with the fish.”)  I looked over just in time to see Chef Forneas (the real person in charge at Sampan) pull out this huge fillet of fish (looked like yellowtail) and do some trimming.  He was showing another one of the kitchen staff how to cut the fish [I think].  Then, he attempted to slice off a piece, but was disappointed and left, hurriedly, to the back of the kitchen.  I was psyched because I thought he was going to get a sharp, Japanese knife (one of those single-beveled ones known as a yanagi) and show this fish a thing or two.  This was going to be so cool to see him do some sashimi slicing right in front of us (I’m a little obsessed with kitchen knives)!  After a few seconds, he then came back into sight … with one hand holding the same knife he was holding before … and the other holding a honing rod …  He then proceeded to hone his knife, Gordon Ramsey style, as he walked towards us (and the fish).  I counted the offenses …  He was going to slice this beautiful fillet not with a yanagi.  He was going to use a knife that he was clearly abusing with a honing rod (any knife that you should be using to cut sashimi should not be honed as such).  He appeared satisfied with this solution, as he walked with an air of pride in his honing technique.  With those three strikes, I had no choice but to leave in utter disgust.  Condoning such practices is abominable.  I fought back the urge to reach across the bar, snatch the fillet, and run out the door in an attempt to rescue the meat.  I vow to you here that I will order sashimi from Sampan nevermore

Written by afterdinnersneeze

19 April 2010 at 7:32am

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