However, as I’ve lamented before, what New York really needs is a banh mi truck. Say you are really craving a banh mi, but happen to be lunching outside Chinatown or the East Village. Say you’re in, for example, the East 50′s. I’m sure many office workers on these Asian-sandwich-deprived blocks would flock to something different from the usual halal vendors (as addictive as white/red sauce is.) Whoever starts driving such a truck would make a killing.
Likewise, someone should also start a pork belly sandwich truck. Gua bao (刮包) is a Taiwanese “burger” that consists of a slab of pork belly in a mantou, or steamed Chinese bun. In Taiwan, at least, the toppings usually include caramelized onions, cilantro, and crushed peauts.
Mantao Chinese Sandwiches on East 53rd St. may be the closest such place. The restaurant name is actually a misnomer. First of all, the food is as Korean-influenced as it is Chinese. Second, instead of steamed fluffy white mantou, the buns used seem closer to Chinese shaobing, baked bread with sesame on top. But no matter. Despite the buns’ lack of mantou qualities, the eatery is still worth a visit.
Notes on selected sandwiches:
Braised pork belly – I had been craving pork belly for weeks, and was looking forward to this one. Mistake. The pork belly was very dry, as though not enough braising liquid was used. The burger was bland overall, and the pickled cucumbers and cilantro didn’t help. A little Sriracha from the squeeze bottle, however, did slightly improve the texture and taste. Next time I would skip this entirely for one of the other sandwiches.
Sliced Beef with Kimchi (pictured up top) - This was my favorite of the bunch. The sliced beef was juicy, bulgogi-like, with equal parts lean meat and fat. The kimchi topping added just the right amount of kick.
Angus Beef Burger with Spicy Sambal Sauce (pictured left, half-eaten) – This is very, very spicy. The burger meat was a teeny bit dry, but hard to notice under the amount of sambal sauce. My lunch date drank a lot of water.
Spicy Pork (left, about to be eaten) – Like the Sliced Beef, the chili-tinged pork here was also juicy with equal parts lean meat and fat. It wasn’t nearly as spicy as the Angus Beef. Topped with pickled daikon, this was another winner.
We didn’t try the dumplings or cold noodles on the menu, but here’s another tip: get the lunch combo that comes with shrimp chips. Unlike the generic shrimp chips from Chinatown, dyed Easter colors and crackly enough to suck all the moisture from your tongue after a few bites, these are thick and substantive and not too greasy.
Note to the restaurant: if the shrimp chips are housemade, please sell them to-go by the bagful.
Mantao Chinese Sandwiches
235 East 53rd St. (btwen 2nd and 3rd Aves.)
New York, NY
More Chinese and Korean eateries in New York: