The Bronx Banh Mi Incident

17 Aug

World of Taste Seafood and Deli

World of Taste Seafood Deli: Circa 2008

After several years now of conducting these eating excursions, most of us in our group understand that it is imperative to always double check on the status of the establishment chosen. And the more obscure it might be, the more diligence required. An African restaurant ballyhooed by the Village Voice in, say February, might no longer exist by July. This time it was my turn to choose our destination and always looking out for the oft-neglected food borough, the Bronx; I did my research and came up with the name of a Vietnamese restaurant situated in an unlikely location on a stretch of Jerome Avenue which runs just below the tracks of the elevated number 4 subway line.

The restaurant was named Phung Hung and, a few days before we were to meet, I called and spoke to someone who seemed to confirm I had found the right place. On the date of our scheduled dinner, I remembered at the last minute to call once more—just to be absolutely sure of its authenticity. This time there was confusion. Was this not, Phung Hung? Had I dialed a wrong number? Whoever answered lost patience with me and hung up. I quickly went onto the computer and typed in the address and found another option; a restaurant called World of Taste Seafood Deli. I called again and was told that the same restaurant was formerly called Phung Hung but its name had been changed. The man I spoke to also told me that he would hold a table for six for “Mr. Brian.”

Seeing the restaurant on the corner of Jerome and 193rd St, I realized why the name was changed. There were photos of fried fish, chicken wings, fries and other fast food Chinese items displayed in the window. It was an appeal to the demographics of the neighborhood to offer what was familiar and safe, but, thankfully, the Vietnamese menu was also available. Gerry and Mike from Yonkers had already arrived and seated at a small round table in the stifling, Vietnam-like climate of the restaurant where a ceiling fan and an enormous window air conditioner cooled only those in their immediate vicinity.

Jerome Avenue

Gerry had a six-pack of beer in a brown paper bag and, at first, was brusquely told he couldn’t bring it into the restaurant. A moment later one of the proprietors, a woman of color who seemed out of place working in an Asian restaurant, asked Gerry if he “talked to David earlier.” Gerry, understanding that it was I who must have spoken to David, who, we learned, was the person I contacted on the phone making the reservation for “Mr. Brian” nodded and, immediately, was granted permission to bring and drink the beer, as long as it was in a paper cup. Apparently “Mr. Brian” carries some serious influence.

Eugene was a late scratch and Zio and Rick were on their way. While we waited, I noticed that most of the cooking in the open kitchen was done by two tiny elderly Vietnamese women. The possibilities of what was to be created in the kitchen by their experienced and no doubt skilled and comforting hands immediately excited me. The anticipation along with the heat combined to form a growing sheen of perspiration around my face and neck. The proprietor, who mentioned she was David’s partner, must have noticed and offered us a table directly in front of the huge, loud air conditioner.

Zio, a dreamy, whimsical smile on his face, walked in just as we moved. Before even sitting down, he announced that he grew up in the surrounding Kingsbridge neighborhood. Glancing around the restaurant but not really looking at anything, he began: “My grandfather had a fruit stand a few blocks up. . .there was a diner right over there on the corner. . .my father used to send money to relatives in Italy. . .” and on and on the reminiscing went. It took a jolt from the Vietnamese iced coffee he ordered, sweetened liberally with condensed milk, to revive him from his stupor and begin concentrating on the present business of stuffing his face.

As we expected, Rick was lagging behind; this time caught in Yankee Stadium traffic. We knew the scenario and began ordering with the assurance that Rick would be grateful with the scraps from our first course. We started with three “banh mi,” Vietnamese sandwiches served in a fresh loaf of French bread. The sandwiches were individual-sized but big enough to share knowing that there would be more. . .much more to come. The three sandwiches arrived looking like they belonged on the cover of Saveur, a glossy food magazine I used to scribble for. The three were banh mi xi mai, a Vietnamese meatball hero smothered in a bright red chili sauce, mi thit heo nuong, stuffed with grilled pork, pate, with sprigs of cilantro and cucumber peeking out, and the phung hung, looking like a traditional hero with cold cuts of ham, ground pork, and pate, but with the added zest of cilantro, chilies and soy sauce. The only complaint about the banh mi came from Zio who lamely claimed he could not negotiate breaking the phung hung version into sharable pieces without obliterating the beautifully prepared sandwich. But it was accomplished and though difficult, we were able to save a few samples for Rick who had just arrived.

Beautiful Banh Mi

Though not much deters us from over indulging on our food adventures, that there was nothing over six dollars on the menu made it practically impossible for us to resist what was to be a very public display of gluttony. We circled numbers that corresponded to the items on the menu and I brought it up to the proprietor who made it clear that she wanted me to read off the items by the number not by the Vietnamese name. There was number 25, country style beef cubes sautéed with scallion and onions, number 16, spring rolls with grilled pork and vegetables piled on rice vermicelli, number 30, shrimp with string beans, scallions and onion in a satea sauce, number 10, seafood with rice noodles soup, 35, beef noodle soup Hue style, and number 33, sautéed mixed vegetables. Once she wrote all the numbers down, needing two pages of her small pad to do so, she began barking out the numbers to the two Vietnamese women who immediately got to work.

Seafood noodle soup

“You know, they filmed Marty around here with Ernest Borgnine,” Zio blurted over the noise of the air conditioner.

Rick looked at him and as if on cue, shouted back, “You’re just a fat, little man. A fat, ugly man.”

Zio concurred: “I’m ugly! I’m ugly! I’m ugly!”

What do you wanna do tonight? I dunno. What do you wanna do?

The screen test ended when the parade of platters began arriving and even with two round tables pushed together, there was barely enough room to hold them all. So impressive was the display that it drew a comment from two diners who had come in after playing basketball at nearby St. James Park, the man shaking his head in awe while his female companion gazed incredulously. “With all that food, I was saying you all must be food critics,” the male basketball player said.

I waved his assertion off. “No, being critical about food just gets in the way of our eating,” I replied.

And there wasn’t much to be critical about at World of Taste Seafood Deli. If you wanted to be picky, the sautéed dishes; the vegetables and shrimp were nothing out of the ordinary, but maybe that was because we had become jaded after the remarkable banh mi, the spicy, beef noodle soup, and the seafood with rice noodles. Closing time was 8:30 and the staff was cleaning up while we were still picking through the remains of our feast. As they were leaving with their take out order, the basketball players glanced one last time at the devastation we created on our combined two tables and shook their heads in awe.

It hadn’t gotten any cooler once we vacated the World of Taste Seafood. Zio got that gaze on his face again and pointed to the train tracks above us. “Martin Sheen and Tony Musante—you know the movie. . .**“ But before Zio could finish telling us about the movie, the uptown number 4 train rumbling above us cut him off.

Sheen and Musante frolicking on the subway in the Bronx.

*World of Taste Seafood Deli sadly closed in 2009. Soon after, Pho Mien Tay, another Vietnamese restaurant opened in the same spot, but was short-lived followed by Pho Saigon #1, which also did not last.  Across the street is another Vietnamese restaurant, called Com Tam Ninh Kieu that has survived the turmoil at 2614 Jerome Avenue that specializes in Pho but without its quirky charms or the magnificent banh mi. Now, at 2614 Jerome there is a nail supply store with signs in Vietnamese.

**The title of the movie Zio was reminiscing about can be found in the title of this post.

World of Taste Seafood Deli: Circa 2011

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