Monday, July 25, 2011

Boston Bargains: 163 Vietnamese Sandwiches

Another installment of dirt cheap, edible chemistry... true love, in a way.
Banh mi seems to be the latest craze of the moment. There are amazing food trucks that have jumped at the opportunity to market and sell the sandwich. And I can't say that I blame them. These things are delicious beyond my wildest dreams, the money shot of every flavor, and if it's a true banh mi, you can bet that you won't have to shell out more than a Lincoln or a few Washingtons to get you full and excited.
So for today, I'm featuring the best of the Vietnamese sandwich joints that I've found in Chinatown. A list that's always in flux, but honestly, this place has been tried and true since the beginning for me: beating out Saigon, Lucy's, Mei Sum... That's right, it's 163 Vietnamese Sandwiches, right in the core of Chinatown.
I'd be hard pressed to say in a blind taste test which store's sandwich was made by 163. Except that I eat a lot of these damn things, and yeah, I'd know. There's something about their barbecue beef sandwich. I know, I know, serious foodies like the cold cuts with the pate. But quite frankly, a) I'm a contrarian by nature and b) with most places, I find that the run of the mill, cheap cold cuts are just not as good as when an establishment is cooking and flavoring something for themselves, and this is especially true in Chinatown. The barbecue beef itself in this sandwich is savory, it's rich, and a little goes a long way. Without a doubt, it's an MSG fest, but I really don't care. There's gotta be soy sauce, and all sorts of umami etceteras going on. And it's just plain delicious. On top of that is a little vinegared salad, if you will. Pickled carrots, onions, and maybe a spear of cucumber. Often when I've walked into this little store at 11:30, simply because I'm not a 12 pm wait in line kind of gal, there is a little lady at the back of the corridor where you order, prepping bunches of carrot for the pickled veggies.
So an order of the barbecue beef sandwich, and if I'm hungry (ALWAYS), then I'll also go in for a little container of shrimp fresh rolls and peanut sauce. A blink of an eye, and my food stuffs are ready. The lady at the counter calls, "Girl! Girl! Ok, ready!" and I take flight like a sparrow. I grab my little pink bag of delectables and run back to the office to eat.
The sandwich is delicious. The savory barbecue beef is a little chewy, obviously cut from economical pieces of meat, but the flavor is perfect. It's soy sauce salty, sweetened with sugar, and also has a tiny bit of a peppery burn at the back. It plays off of the pickled vegetables perfectly. These veggies are crunchy, and pop within the sandwich. With sweeter, Asian mayonnaise (maybe Kewpie) and a little fish sauce, you have a symphony of flavor within a fairly simple baguette. It's an incredible value at $3.25. As a note, if you're ever headed on the Bolt Bus to NYC, this is the perfect lunch to bring along.
Also take note of the simple spring rolls. The shrimp, noodle, and herb rolls are delicious, and equally as cheap as the sandwich. The peanut sauce is fantastic, and breaks up the freshness of the spring roll with a little bit of zing. I usually split these as a nice side dish with one of my coworkers who has the sand to go all in with me on a Chinatown lunch.
All and all, the banh mi craze is here to stay. It's a delicious, cheap sandwich with a balance of flavors from the bread to the pickled veggies, the sweet, savory meat, and a bit of tang from fish sauce and sweet mayo. Instead of grabbing whatever food truck may have capitalized on the craze, why not take a walk into Chinatown and go for the real deal. They'll be waiting for you at 163 Vietnamese Sandwiches.

163 Vietnamese Sandwiches
66 Harrison Ave
Boston, MA 02111

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