From the NYTimes -
Lo, a New Age of Heroes
December 1, 2004
By ED LEVINE
NEW YORK's hot heroes speak many languages. No, not the
buff guys in the the firefighter calendar, but those long,
crisp and slightly chewy rolls filled with meat or cheese
and served hot from the oven or grill. They are
working-class sandwiches, which provide comfort and
sustenance any time of day or night.
After writing about cold heroes last fall, I intended to
limit my treatment of the hot version to the more familiar
and beloved hot Italian-American heroes. But citywide
wanderings over the last three months have convinced me
that two other sandwiches are ready to take their rightful
places in the New York hot heroes pantheon. Already on the
rise as part of the New York food scene is the Vietnamese
banh mi - a toasted baguette filled with pork, pickled
vegetables, fresh coriander and mayonnaise. Restaurants
here add things like grilled shrimp and grilled mushrooms.
Not so well known outside their communities, Dominican and
Puerto Rican establishments in all five boroughs serve a
roast chicken hero, complete with dark meat and skin
stripped off the bone, yielding a winning combination of
salty and sweet, crispy and tender.
A lechonerĂ*a is an eating place specializing in pork in
many forms, and terrific heroes and hot plates at the
brightly lighted Sandy's LechonerĂ*a in East Harlem attract
everyone in the neighborhood, including construction
workers, business executives and the teachers in nearby
schools. When you order a roast pork sandwich, the sandwich
makers cut the meat freshly off a roasted leg of pork and
place it in a crisp hero bread. Once the bread is heated
with the pork in it, they take it from the sandwich press
and add lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, as requested.
Consider it a succulent cousin of the Cuban sandwich.
They make chicken sandwiches the same way, stripping the
dark meat from a quarter roast chicken on the big cutting
boards that line the front of the restaurant. When you
order a pork chop hero at Sandy's, they fry a fairly thick
chop in the kitchen in back before sending it up front to
be cut into the sandwich. In a particularly carnivorous
touch, they put the bone on top of the sandwich, which
means you can gnaw the rest of the meat off it.
It was at Milanes, a modest Dominican storefront restaurant
in Chelsea, that I had the chicken sandwich that sent me
into orbit. Grecia Milanes, who opened her doors in 1995,
strips the flesh and skin from a quarter roasted chicken
and fills a Latino-style hero roll, which she toasts in the
sandwich press with the meat and skin before layering
lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise on the sandwich.
The crispy skin, in combination with the other components,
elevate this sandwich to near-mythic status. The sweetness
of the mayonnaise, the gamy meatiness of the dark meat
chicken and the crispy skin make for the Dominican
equivalent of a Peking duck hero. Make sure to ask for the
skin to be included on the sandwich, because Ms. Milanes
says that many people watching their fat intake do not want
Ms. Milanes, who learned to cook from her mother in Puerta
Plata in the Dominican Republic, said that freshly roasted
chickens are the key.
"A lot of people make sandwiches with chicken breast," she
explained. "But we make it in real Santo Domingan style
with moist roasted dark meat."
Cibao Restaurant, one of the last ungentrified storefronts
on Clinton Street on the Lower East Side, also makes a very
fine hot chicken hero, which will set you back a mere $3.
At Margon Restaurant in Times Square you can watch
Bienvenido Rivas, a fine hero craftsman, make your sandwich
on a cutting board in the front of the store. Ask him to
put a couple of pieces of crackling (crispy pork skin) on
your roast pork hero.
PERHAPS the ultimate cross-cultural hot hero is the
sandwich that has become known as a banh mi. In "Authentic
Vietnamese Cooking," Corinne Trang translates banh mi as a
Saigon baguette. She writes that the Vietnamese "took this
quintessential Gallic invention and made it their own by
substituting rice flour for half of the wheat flour."
In this country banh mi are made with an Italian hero roll
or a French-style baguette. In Vietnam, said Michael Huynh
(his nickname is Bao), the chef and an owner of Bao Noodle,
at Second Avenue and 22nd Street, the classic banh mi
filling is a combination of pork roll (essentially
Vietnamese bologna), pork pĂ˘tĂ©, daikon and carrots pickled
in vinegar and sugar, fresh coriander and mayonnaise. The
sandwich is usually toasted, mayonnaise included, before
the cool pickles and coriander are added.
Here Mr. Huynh uses a French baguette made by the Parisi
Bakery in Little Italy, which incidentally makes an
estimable meatball parmigiana from noon to 3 p.m. on
weekdays. He fills the baguette with grilled chicken
thighs, pieces of pork chop or shrimp marinated in fish
sauce and lemon grass; pickled vegetables; and fresh
coriander. He uses a Japanese mayonnaise, Kewpie, slightly
sweeter than Hellmann's. The result is a sandwich that is
perfectly balanced, simultaneously hot and cold, sweet and
savory, crispy and tender.
Banh mi were introduced in this country more than a decade
ago in Chinatown shops in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.
In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, home to recent Vietnamese
Ă©migrĂ©s, banh mi are sold in storefronts. Nin Van Dang
opened An Dong, his banh mi shop there, in 1996. He has
retired and closed the shop, but the next generation of
banh mi makers is on the scene. His daughter Teresa and her
husband, Stanley Ng, along with her brother Billy, have
opened Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches (named for the Ngs'
son, Nicky) in the East Village. The Ngs have added a
portobello mushroom banh mi, because customers kept
clamoring for a vegetarian version.
Banh mi shops have popped up in Chinatown in Manhattan at
Sau Voi Corporation, 101-105 Lafayette Street (Walker
Street), where you can also buy the latest Vietnamese hit
movies and CD's, and in Brooklyn, where I had a killer
meatball banh mi at Ba Xuyen in Sunset Park.
THE mother tongue of New York's hot heroes is Italian, and
some of the places I previously praised for their cold
heroes offer great hot ones, too.
The Italian hero should properly be called an
Italian-American hero. Experts on Italian food tell me a
chicken parmigiana sandwich has never been served anywhere
in Italy. Like the cold sandwich, the hot hero evolved from
the latticini (dairy) shops and pork stores that sprouted
in New York's Italian neighborhoods in East Harlem;
Astoria, Queens; Carroll Gardens and Bensonhurst, Brooklyn;
and on Arthur Avenue and in Bedford Park in the Bronx.
Mary Lou Capezza, an owner of the Corona Heights Pork Store
in Queens, is perhaps the city's finest hot hero maker. Her
training started when her family's store in Astoria made
lunchtime sandwiches for the employees of the nearby Con
Edison plant, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority
workers and those from factories on 19th and 20th Avenues.
They were selling so many that they made the fillings in
advance and put the sandwiches on a steam table. (I am sure
those sandwiches were delicious, but heroes get soggy on a
steam table, and the food becomes a gloppy mess.)
When the family opened the Corona Heights Pork Store, a
stone's throw from Shea Stadium, Mrs. Capezza did not plan
to make sandwiches.
"The brokenhearted guys from the Con Ed plant," she said,
"heard that we had set up shop in Corona Heights, and they
started coming around asking me to make sandwiches. How
could I say no?"
Every sandwich, whether chicken, eggplant parmigiana or
potato and egg, made with her husband's fresh mozzarella,
is made to order. So you should call in your order or be
prepared to wait 20 minutes to half an hour.
Why are these hot heroes so good?
"I cook here like I
cook at home," Mrs. Capezza said. "My meatballs are made
with freshly ground pork, bread crumbs, fresh basil and a
little bit of imported Italian pecorino Romano cheese. My
sauce is made with pork, onions, basil, olive oil,
California tomatoes and a little bit of garlic. My chicken
cutlets are made with bread crumbs, garlic, Romano cheese
and basil and dipped in egg batter."
When a chicken parmigiana hero is ordered at the store,
Mrs. Capezza fries the chicken cutlets, then tops them with
her husband's mozzarella before placing them in a pot of
her sauce. The mozzarella melts there. The tang of the
Romano cheese blends with the creaminess of the mozzarella
and the sweetness of the sauce.
You can get the sandwich on a standard fairly soft hero
roll, but a better choice is a crispy, chewy brick-oven
baguette from Rose and Joe's Bakery in Astoria.
A few blocks from Ms. Capezza's store, the DeBenedittis
family has been making serious hot heroes for years at
Leo's Latticini, also known as Mama's. Marie DeBenedittis,
one of three sisters running the place under the watchful
eye of their octogenarian mother, makes hot meat sandwiches
with superb gravy and homemade mozzarella.
Tuesday through Saturday, Ms. DeBendittis roasts remarkably
moist turkey breast, but Thursday is roast beef and roast
pork day. The pork is so meaty and juicy it does not need
gravy, but the properly salted gravy, combined with fresh
mozzarella, makes for a terrific combination.
The old Italian neighborhoods of Brooklyn are home to many
a fine hot hero establishment. In Carroll Gardens, John and
George Esposito make an exemplary hero at the pork store
bearing their name, a sweet Italian sausage sandwich topped
with sautĂ©ed broccoli rabe and a schmear of fresh ricotta.
I turn to it when my wife accuses me of avoiding green
Brooklyn is also where the warm roast beef hero, made with
fresh mozzarella and gravy, rules. I enjoy these
scrumptious beauties at John's in Bensonhurst and at
Lioni's in Dyker Heights. But the hot roast beef - and
roast pork, too - sandwich of my dreams is served at
Clemente's, a little grocery and butcher shop in Gravesend.
In the same shop he started working in as a 12-year-old,
Clemente Aquilino makes everything from scratch, the roast
beef made from the bottom round cut, the roast loin of
pork, the mozzarella and the peppery and garlicky pork and
beef gravies made from pan drippings.
"I'm living the American dream," Mr. Aquilino said. "From
clean-up boy to president."
Hot heroes have also allowed Ms. Milanes, Mrs. Capezza and
Mr. Huynh, who came to this country as a scared 16-year-old
rescued at sea by the Navy, to live the American dream.
That was then, but this is now. I might have caught a
glimpse of the next wave at Ba Xuyen, as I was leaving with
six banh mi in hand.
"You should come back soon," the smiling woman behind the
counter called out. "We have good bagels, too."