When you look up “banh mi” in the Midtown East MenuPages listings, you find Num Pang, a tiny Cambodian sandwich shop started by two friends that’s distinctly not-banh-mi yet nonetheless satisfies every spicy sandwich desire I have.
The menu is about fifteen sandwiches long and four side dishes deep (plus a bunch of soups and salads that I barely notice the existence of due to their health benefits), and my boyfriend and I haven’t tried anything yet that hasn’t left us wishing for one more sandwich to eat and one more side to hold onto like a little family pet that we bathe and take on a walk from time to time.
Here’s a sampling of one of our many orders:
boneless spare ribs
five-spice glazed pork belly
grilled corn on the cob
tropical fruit salad
It begins with the bread from NYC’s Parisi Bakery, which has that perfect crusty exterior yet doesn’t flake away all over your best shirt like a traditional banh mi does. Even when the first bite doesn’t yield any meat, the spicy-sweet chili mayo on the bread is a treat on its own. But the meat–whether it’s the spare ribs or the pork belly or the veal meatballs or the sausage–is always seared on the outside and tender on the inside and made all the more spicy and mouth-watering by the complimentary Sriracha sauce. And if you love a banh mi like I do, you’ll appreciate the familiar cucumber, carrots, and cilantro on every sandwich. Every bite is rich but also bright, familiar yet also distinctly Asian-influenced.
The corn was a complete shock to us, because we were expecting the flavors of Mexican corn-on-the-cob: lime, chili, and cotija cheese. The lime is there, and the chili mayo, but what looks like shredded cheese is actually shredded coconut. Shenanigans! I love cheese, but the sweet with the spicy and the tart is enough goodness to make me change factions.
The fruit salad is whole lychees, slices of pineapple, papaya, and mango, and cubes of young coconut in a lemongrass and mint juice. A few bites of this and a few sips of the blood orange lemonade is the perfect sweet-sour way to counteract the spiciness of the sandwiches. My boyfriend thinks the watermelon juice is better, but don’t listen to him.
I originally planned to give Num Pang 4.5 donuts out of 5 but started to reconsider it once I accidentally saw that both locations get 4 stars when you search for them on Google Maps. I thought through the menu and the meals I’ve had, trying to convince myself of a reason to drop its rating. Is too expensive? No, it’s exactly what I’m used to paying for banh mi. Is it not as flavorful as I expect? No, it’s actually more flavorful than most (if not all) comparable sandwiches. Can I think of anything that would make it better? More meat!, but that’s just me being greedy. I asked my boyfriend for his opinion, and he said, “One word: corn.” And then it became clear that I’m right and Google is wrong. 4.5 donuts it is.
140 East 41st Street
New York, NY 10017 (map)
21 East 12th Street
New York, NY 10003 (map)