Boerum Hill got its first Vietnamese sandwich joint — Hanco’s — a little over a year ago. A small, avocado-green eatery on the corner of Smith and Bergen streets, Hanco’s served up a culinary masterpiece that could once only be reliably found in Sunset Park, and at one East Village shop, “Nicky’s.”
The prices were unbeatable — $4.25 for its “classic” pork sandwich — and the bright, shoebox-sized restaurant had been designed with youth, and Martha Stewart, in mind. Its opening was a cheerful day in foodie history.
Soon enough, the whole neighborhood had fallen in fell in love with the banh mi, a delicate, spicy-sweet, French-influenced baguette sandwich filled with thinly sliced carrots, daikon, oinions, cilantro and barbequed pork, pate or chicken. Orders were plentiful, and owner Hanco Tang felt good.
Then one late summer day, Tang learned that the Dang family, owners of the aforementioned Nicky’s, had rented a ground-floor space on Atlantic Avenue, just a few blocks away. The store would break his Brooklyn banh mi monopoly.
And it wasn’t only business, it was personal. The Tangs and the Dangs are local families, both immigrated from Vietnam in the early 1980s and found homes in a complex of four-story, brick buildings on Third Street between Hoyt and Smith streets. The new rivals were old neighbors. Tang was influenced by Dang’s father, who opened the city’s first well-known banh mi shop in Sunset Park, An Dong.
The young sandwich entrepreneur admits that when he was growing up, he would stop by Dang’s shop with the hope of picking up tips for someday running his own place. But what gets fuzzy is what exactly he learned there.
Since Dang moved to town, there have been persistent whispers that Hanco’s sandwich was born in Nicky’s kitchen.
“Hanco would always come by, asking, ‘How do you do that?’ and ‘How do you do this?’” said Dang, who believes that her competitor learned the secrets of the trade from her dad.
Needless to say, Tang doesn’t remember it that way.
“I did ask them where to get the meat, but they wouldn’t tell me,” he said.
Hanco said that the only thing the two restaurants shared was its flaky, fresh baguettes, a remnant of the days when the French controlled Southeast Asia.
But he credited his parents with teaching him the basics of banh mi.
The tweaks he’s given that parental recipe, he claims, are all his own. “I didn’t taste any garlic in the [Dang’s] recipe when I was young,” he said.
And there are other differences between the two sandwiches. Most notably, Nicky’s serves its sandwiches with crisp, fresh slices of carrots while Hanco’s abides by the sandwich’s traditional recipe, which demands pickled veggies.
“All the families I eat with pickle the carrots. I think it’s a must for Vietnamese sandwiches,” Tang said.
Which sandwich is better is, of course, a question of taste. After a recent banh mi binge, I found myself preferring the crisper, more-delicate package offered at Nicky’s.
In any case, I really am in no position to badmouth either. Spicy and sweet, crispy and soft, French and Vietnamese, banh mi are addictive. But one thing did bother me: Neither Tang nor Dang would tell me where I could get the right baguette. Perhaps they’re afraid of further competition?
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