Banh Mi So 1 has been my primary banh mi stop for a while now, and it had been a long time since I last tried Saigon. With their recent move bringing them so much closer to home, though, I figured I'd give Saigon another go. For the record, whenever discussion has cropped up in the past, I've tossed my support towards So 1.
This is going back a couple Saturdays ago, around two-ish. Things started off well, as I only had to watch one elderly Chinese gentleman blow a loogie out onto the street during my walk. I headed into Saigon to find a few people looking at jewelry, and a bunch more waiting for sandwiches. After placing my order with the young girl (banh mi and -- for the hell of it -- the shrimp/papaya salad) I took up about six feet of vertical space over by the fish tank.
The salad was plopped down on the counter after about 2 minutes, which was lovely. However, despite the fact that there were at least 15 people waiting for sandwiches, not one banh mi came out of the back for over 30 f'n minutes. That's not to say they weren't being made. There were several people back there cranking out banh mis like they were getting paid to do it; we just weren't getting any of them.
Turns out, some jackhole had placed an order for eight-bags worth of banh mi. I don't know how many banh mi fit into eight bags, but it apparently takes the entire banh mi corps more than half an hour to make them. So, rather than having one person working on Dipstick LaRue's sandwiches, while someone else covered the rest of us, we just stood there like silent, pleasant idiots waiting for food that we weren't destined to have in any sort of agreeable time frame.
Once we finally got rid of that woman (it was fun trying to watch her carry all of her bags at once, and just as fun to note that -- despite the brace on her hand -- nobody offered to help her) the sandwiches didn't exactly come flying off the line, but people did start getting their food. I believe we cracked back onto schedule at number 72 or so -- I had 92.
Anyway, I got my food somewhere in the neighborhood of an hour after I had ordered it, walked back home, and set to work. The salad was okay, nothing special. The dressing was served on the side -- I didn't realize green papaya was so bland on its own. The sandwich...
The differences between Saigon and So 1's sandwiches are ultimately fairly subtle. People have mentioned Saigon's char siu cooking technique and, ingredients-wise, that texture difference stands out perhaps moreso than anything else. I still don't understand why none of these places are capable of putting together a sandwich in a manner that doesn't leave all of the meat crammed into one side of the roll, and all of the vegetables crammed into the other.
I did ask them for a spicy sandwich, but -- just like So 1 -- "spicy" either means nothing to the people making banh mi, or they just assume white people are joking when they say such silly things.
All in all, I ultimately enjoyed the Saigon sandwich no more than So 1's "#1" offering. It probably sounds as though I entered into consumption as a bitter and angry man, but I actually took the hour-long wait in stride, enjoying the frequent "I'm sorry" gestures from the girl working the register, as well as the camaraderie that forms between groups of people waiting in ridiculous lines. I bit into the sandwich still expecting something great, and it certainly was. Just, no more great than what I've been eating elsewhere.
All things considered, my future banh mi stops will no doubt settle back on Banh Mi So 1.
Incidentally, unless it's related to some sort of childhood-memory fondness, I don't see what people are getting out of the fresh-pressed sugar-cane juice at Banh Mi So 1. I've given it several tries, but find it to be fairly unenjoyable.