The $6 Wundersandwich (aka the “It Could Be Possible To Live Off Nha Toi’s Menu Alone” Post)

Finally. A $6 sandwich in New York City that is everything I’ve ever wanted: Badass baguette that’s so fresh it talks smack: “Oh yah, what. Bring it.” A serious veggie crunch and bold, fresh flavas that stand up to the succulent, meaty, (in this case porky) protein at its core.

There’s more, nine more banh mi on the menu — lemongrass pork cutlet or shitakke mushroom, anyone? — all priced at either $6 or $7 dollars, NSA.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Nhà Tôi.

Don’t blink as you walk past this tiny storefront on Havemeyer Street, lest you miss it (inside, it’s almost all kitchen and about a mish-mashed seats). The bi heo sandwich that I had — stuffed with shredded pork and skin with roasted rice powder — trumps any banh mi I’ve had in the city, including Baoguette’s.

This is the kind of food memory that will make the injustices of that crappy, prepackaged salad lunch in Midtown and overpriced UES bodega sandwich — with all due respect, it’s just meat, cheese, shredded iceberg lettuce, watery tomato, raw onion on a passably fresh roll — all the greater.

But Nhà Tôi’s menu doesn’t stop there. Once you get past the sandwiches, there’s a full menu of pho to explore, as well as snacks. On my visit, I was blatantly oggling the crispy spring rolls at the next table (can’t help it, close quarters warrant awkward seating and wafting smells).

… and the drinks? Well, no booze. However, the lineup of canned Southeast Asian beverages strung up on a chord will keep you perennially interested, e.g. basil seed beverage with “creme soda flavour” ($2). What’s it taste like? Says Nhà Tôi chef/owner Fred, “Well, I grew up with it. So I love it. But there’s definitely a certain texture to it.

So how does Nhà Tôi keep their prices down? I’d guess from low overhead costs. In addition to being tiny, there’s only one menu, on a sheet of 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper, full of Sharpie cross-outs and tacked-on additions.

Why not print more? Not sure … that’s between a man and his laser jet. I’ll be back to Nhà Tôi in a split second, but I’m not going there.

Nhà Tôi, 160 Havemeyer St., nr. S. 2nd St., 718-599-1820. Cash only.

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Chinese and Japanese, Together Under One Roof? (aka the “No, Not Fusion… Something Else” Post)

“Hunan Delight Matsuya
Chinese & Japanese Cuisine”

One phone number, one address. And then there’s the matter of the handwritten sign that reads “FREE WINE” in the window.

What. I’ve been perplexed by this locals Upper East Side restaurant since I moved into the area.

The take-away menus make certain that it’s two restaurants — Hunan Delight, a Chinese restaurant, and Matsua Japanese cuisine — in one space. How can two such disparate cuisines — different ingredients, techniques, cultural histories — cohabit? How can this possibly work?

Well, except, it does. The food’s actually really good.

We came for the free wine, the Chinese food (after I found out Hunan Delight gets rave reviews online, to my surprise) and maybe a California roll. (It’s hard to mess up a roll made of crab stick, avocado and cucumber.)

What we discovered:

— Free wine offer is truly free: one glass of cheap, but crisp and very drinkable white wine, per person at dinner

— One of my new favorite Chinese dishes, called Green Jade Chicken ($11.95). Plump white meat pieces woked over high heat in “chef’s spicy sauce” (not really that spicy) along with matchstick-sized pieces of fresh ginger and string beans.

In the heat, the sauce caramelizes into a crisp, light glaze on the beans and chicken; the fresh ginger adds a welcome kick. This dish is the exact antithesis to the soggy, fatty, greasy Chinese food of styrofoam yore. It’s just lovely.

— And the sushi? You can find far worse sushi in supermarkets everywhere. Entranced by the platter of Dragon Rolls the sushi chef was putting up on the counter (see below) … so we ordered one.

It turned out to be a cooked roll (I still haven’t tried the raw sushi here) — shrimp tempura and cucumber on the inside, wrapped in eel and avocado on the outside.

— Doting, attentive service, of the sort you only get at a restaurant where the proprietors are that hands on, that involved, with everything.

There was a certain activity in the restaurant the night we were there, tables being reconfigured, the sushi chef turning out dragon rolls like nobody’s business, a party of young twenty-somethings turns up with a bottle of Johnny Walker.

Turns out, on this particular night the restaurant was hosting a friends and family Chinese New Year feast of epic proportions after the restaurant closed (11p). Being the last guests in the restaurant, and obviously geeking out about the Chinese New Year food, they kindly invited us to join … we didn’t, and in hindsight, wish we did. The food looked A-mazing and it was of epic proportions.

Still, this sit-down dinner for two totaled just $42.30 … also known in New York City as cheap.

Hunan Delight, a Chinese restaurant, and Matsuya Sushi, Japanese cuisine, share 1467 York Avenue, at 78th Street, 212-628-8161

Notes to a Young Taco Apprentice (aka the “Amazing Korean Tacos!” Post)

[Overheard at the bar at Duck’s Eatery @SPiN — while contemplating my own Korean tacos, which are built of tender, braised short ribs, housemade oyster kimchi and piled high with crunchy bean sprouts and fresh cilantro.]

Q: Damn, these tacos are good.

A: Yes.

Q:  So at what point should one be concerned when one encounters a taco that results in meaty, taco-y, drips-running-down-chin flavor?

A. My  young taco apprentice, you have much yet to learn. It is best to accept your fate.

Q: And then?

A: Well, if you are experiencing this condition and suede boots are involved — it’s time to reposition your bar stance.

Q: And then?

A: Take a moment to collect ones thoughts with a sip of Sam Adams’ seasonal Nobel Pils. (Ed. note: which pairs beautifully with these tacos.) Take in the soundtrack: the pleasant “ping-pong, ping-pong” sound of the many balls volleying across tables, overlaid by the Pogues, the Velvet Underground, Nirvana, Radiohead. Your next bite will come to you when you are ready.

Q: I am beginning to understand. And how do I convey my appreciation?

A: My young taco apprentice, you may have heard of the expression, “licking the fingers.” This will appropriately convey your feelings.

Duck’s Eatery at SPiN, 48 E. 23rd St., at Park Avenue South, 212-980-1404. If you exit the Downtown-bound 6 Train at 23rd Street you can get a preview via a large, underground picture window.

Thursday: Zen Palate Fail (aka the “Vanessa’s Dumpling House Comes Through … Again” Post)

photoI am easily excited about the prospect of a great food deal, like the e-mail I received from SeamlessWeb advertising “Delivery Week” (which actually runs through October 31st). Um, 3-course lunch specials of $12.09, in my shit Midtown West neighborhood? Yeah, what’cha got?

Well, the best offer (at least the day after the Bill’s burger gorging) was: Mmm… Zen Palate. So veggie, and so good-ish for you.

Well, it was the best offer …

until I discovered that my sweet photo-1potato fries didn’t even have a hint of warmth (they were hard), and that was after I found a bug in my already disappointing, stalk-filled watercress salad, which was all before I bit into one of the worst veggie patties I’ve ever had — a sad, flavorless, tan-colored thing smashed between a stale bun and a slice of tomato that had been pushed on so long that it’d made a damp imprint on patty.

photo-2I don’t waste food. I did on Thursday. … Good thing I had to run to LES and I had the chance to pop into one of my Eldridge Street favorites, Vanessa’s Dumpling House, for a sesame pancake sandwich and a side of soup. Fixes everything.

Sunday: In Search of a Fresh, Lively Salad (aka the “Almost Perfect Baoguette Steak Salad” Post)

photo-6Finally, late into Sunday evening, I found myself  standing at the counter of Baoguette/Pho Sure in the West Village, utterly parched for some fresh, lively greenery after Saturday’s (need I remind you) “Ugghhh …” binge.

There is one salad on the menu, a skirt steak salad. (note: I can find no online menu that reflects this menu change/update.) Skirt steak salad, with pineapple, English cucumber, fresh herbs, crushed peanuts, etc., etc. $12.99.

photo-8“Does that come on a bed of greens?” I ask. I only ask because the only other salad listed, a green papaya salad, while delicious, has no bed of greens whatsoever. And I need some leafy greens. Desperately.

She told me yes.

In fact, the answer is no. No greens. I was sort of annoyed … until I took a bite.

That salad was gone in t-minus 10 minutes, and I wanted more. Simple, fresh, beautiful — and with ample, gorgeous (and gorgeously rare) slices of skirt steak — “Fuck it, I will find some greens tomorrow.”

Thursday: Crispy Fried Whole Fish at Saigon Grill, This Is Something I Could Get Into

photo-2Crispy fried whole fish is something I could really get into. The way the fish is served, its flanks deftly sliced, the meat on the verge of falling-apart-suppleness — stop staring at the maraschino cherry eyes. Go ahead, dig in with your chopsticks. You won’t ever look back.

At Saigon Grill, the location adjacent to Union Square, the ca chien, a crispy, 1 1/2 pound sea bass, is served Vietnamese style, swimming (pun intended) in traditional sweet and sour sauce that’s just a touch spicy and loaded with slices of mild, white onion, and red and green bell peppers.

I’m already envisioning a crispy whole fish streak: How many Asian cultures have their own variation? (It’s meant to be a rhetorical question, folks.)

I recall having a Thai version at Thai Angel, my former local Thai spot in Soho, and a Japanese version involving a whole fried blowfish at The Fish Joint in Oceanside, Ca. an only-in-So-Cal Japanese restaurant run by a couple of redheaded brothers equally serious about their restaurant, surfing and punk rock. (I have photo evidence of this blowfish — will track it down.)

photoNot to be overshadowed by the excellence of the whole fried fish, Saigon Grill is generally known to be a legitimate spot for Vietnamese food, and I can attest that the fried crab claw appetizer (pictured) was like a crab meat fritter hybrid, oh so good, and the summer rolls (not pictured) were among some of the best I’ve had in the city — which is sort of a big deal.

Summer rolls have almost reached that status of something I’ve stopped ordering, because too often they’re done all wrong: the rice paper is gummy, or too thick; the shrimp inside are bland, probably pre-cooked, previously frozen; the fresh herbs either lacking entirely or just not vibrant. There’s nothing more disappointing than a summer roll that is but a sad, bland vehicle for sauce.

Not the case at Saigon Grill.