John Donne 9 p.m., May 27
It isn't entirely fair to pass judgment--harsh or otherwise--on a place the very first day it's open for business. So, any impression of Taco Banh should be considered an opinion in progress at best. Still, the little Vietmanese-Mexican fusion shop in the space recently vacated by Caffe Vergnano on 5th Ave is exciting enough in its prospects to warrant an assessment after the soft opening. The grand opening will happen soon after the liquor license comes through and Taco Banh can sell beer and wine.
The interior isn't much changed from the decor of the coffee shop. Everything is still spare black and blonde. The overall look fits the Asian-fusion motif at least as well, if not better, than it did the slick, Euro feel of Caffe V. Really, this is a pretty cool spot, all things considered.
The present menu is pretty spare. Salads, tacos, banh (sandwiches), and larger plates that feature the four proteins the kitchen has available: beef, chicken, pork, and tofu.
At $3, the tacos are reasonable considering their decent size. A beef taco featured short ribs that had been brazed almost to the point of no return. Delightfully, the kitchen took them to the point of nearly liquid tenderness, but not to the sad threshold where the meat becomes mealy and dry. Let's hope that trend continues.
The taco was a little soggy and difficult to eat, and the acoutrements still need some figuring out, but the excellent flour tortilla and succulent beef paid off.
The banh mi, Vietnamese-style sandwiches that occupy the $8 mid-point of the menu, feature the same meats as the tacos. Out of the gate, it's impossible to ignore that Taco Banh's sandwiches get tossed into a panini press before they're served. This is a little unorthodox and compresses the crumb of the bread in a way that compromises the texture of an ideal banh mi. Had it not been pressed, the bread seemed like it would have been perfect for making sandwiches in the Vietnamese fashion.
The pork is quite nice, though not as perfectly prepared as the beef, and it is definitely a little leaner than the carnitas that it most closely resembles. The sandwiches don't contain a huge amount of meat, which is actually acceptable. What seems to be missing more is the flavorful assortment of fresh and pickled vegetables with which banh mi are usually trimmed.
Arugula and a few pickles aren't quite up to the task of adding the piquancy and crisp, fresh snappiness that characterizes the best banh mi.
Still, Taco Banh has a lot of potential and it will be interesting to see how the restaurant develops in the coming weeks as the crew adjusts to the needs and appetites of the local clientele.
3850 Fifth Avenue
Fri & Sat 10:30AM-2AM