I recently spoke to a local former chef who said he covets my gig as a restaurant critic. I privately wondered if this aspiring food writer would be so enamored if he knew the job can be a money-losing proposition: in exploring even budget-priced restaurants, I often outspend my compensation. If only there were more places like Sub City, a bánh mì specialist whose entire menu I ate for about $30. As one of the world's great cheap sandwiches, the bánh mì gloriously combines Vietnamese and French influences. It's served less often in restaurants than from street carts or specialty stands inside bakeries, groceries, or other retailers. Sub City occupies a stall in Avana Marketplace, a street-level food court in a Chinatown condo building; its neighbors include a sushi counter and a stand serving Cantonese egg puffs, a waffle-like sweet snack.
Each generous, filling sub here costs a mere $2.95, its fresh, crackly crusted baguette briefly toasted, sliced lengthwise, and smeared with pork-liver pâté and mayo. Vegetables come next: lightly pickled julienned carrots, daikon, and bird chilies; fresh cucumber spears, jalapeño slices, cilantro, and julienned onions. (Ask for one or both chili additions if you enjoy capsicum heat.) Last comes a dash of soy or fish sauce and your choice of protein. The less-adventurous can opt for grilled chicken cutlets, teriyaki-like BBQ beef, or char-siu pork, all tender and very fine. Lovers of charcuterie will want to sample the various pork-based Vietnamese cold cuts, some with textures that may be unfamiliar but aren't too challenging in a sandwich. Vietnamese head cheese, for instance, is delicious and unscary, looking more like a coarse salami than its ooky, gelatinous European cousins. "Fried pork cake" has a flavor not unlike American pork roll and looks like thick-cut bologna. The only dull choice here is the relentlessly chewy, boiled-and-shredded pork skin. Vegetarians can opt for lightly fried tofu with the pâté omitted.
Drink options include hot and iced Vietnamese coffee ($1.25–$2.50) served with or without sweetened condensed milk, and soft drinks both Asian and American ($1–$1.50). Desserts include chè trái cây ($2.50), a smoothie-like blender drink of coconut, cherries, longan, jackfruit, sweetened condensed milk, and ice. There's also a brace of flan-like caramel custard cakes ($2.50). Sweet service, beautiful sandwiches, and great value make Sub City another worthy entry in Boston's lineup of bánh mì purveyors — arguably some of the best friends a frugal food nerd could have.
Sub City, located at 42 Beach Street in Chinatown, is open daily from 8 am–6 pm. Call 617.423.1688.