I’m a big man. I need a big Shredder.
The sandwich: Five-Spice Glazed Pork Belly from Num Pang, two locations in Manhattan. This one came from the 41st St. location near Grand Central Station. The other spot is just south of Union Square (more on that in a bit).
The construction: Five-spice glazed pork belly (obviously) with pickled Asian pear, cilantro, carrot, cucumber and chili mayo on a semolina roll from Parisi bakery.
Important background info: Several items. First: The owners of Num Pang used to run a Cambodian restaurant on the Lower East Side called Kampuchea that was among my favorite places to eat in the city. It served amazing sandwiches. Long before I reviewed sandwiches online or knew much about the Vietnamese banh mi, Kampuchea introduced me to the wonders of the banh-mi stuff — pickled carrots, cucumbers and cilantro, most notably — atop a sandwich.
Second: “Num Pang” means sandwich in the Cambodian language Khmer.
Third: At both Num Pang locations and on the Num Pang website, there are signs reading, “Our sandwiches were created to be enjoyed as they are. Please, no modifications!”
I have mixed feelings about that. On one hand, I appreciate that the chefs responsible for these sandwiches put thought into how the ingredients are going to interact, and that they want the products that represent them to be the ones they actually created. For this reason, I now almost always order sandwiches for review as they’re listed on the menu — I used to modify some (usually by omitting onions). Also, I imagine prohibiting modifications helps keep the line at Num Pang moving at peak hours.
On the other hand, the adamance with which they herald the rule does come off somewhere between pretentious and self-conscious. Plus, if it extends to the chili-mayo (and I’m not sure if it does), I imagine they’re alienating a ton of potential customers who vehemently dislike mayo and don’t feel like having to scrape it off their bread just because the chef said they had to have it on there.
What it looks like (in this crappy, shadowy photo):
How it tastes: Outstanding. Let’s talk about that part first.
The bread is fresh and toasted to just a touch of brownness around the edges, and it’s just thick enough to hold up under the intense moisture of the sandwich without making it too bready. It’s a pretty neat trick the bread pulls, really: Throughout eating the sandwich you feel like it’s so messy you must be losing stuff out the sides and back of the roll, but somehow it all stays contained in there. (Some of that’s on you, of course, assuming you’re the careful and experienced sandwich-eater that I am and you bite at the correct angles to push stuff back inside the boundaries of the bread. It’s not magic bread, fellas.)
The base ingredients that come standard on all Num Pang sandwiches play nicely. The cucumber adds a ton of crunch, the carrot brings some sweetness and the cilantro some bite. The chili mayo helps bind everything together, like mayo does, plus contributes some spice and tangy mayo flavor.
The pork belly is so tender and juicy that it’s almost hard to distinguish from the mushy pear, and they work together in a delicious mix of sweet and savory flavors. There’s something warm and earthy in there — ginger? — and definitely cinnamon. And the combination of the pork and pear is so moist that the juices were dripping down my hand and spilling into the little cardboard dish, making the bread’s ability to hold up under pressure that much more impressive.
Here’s the issue: It’s just not very big.
Yeah, yeah, that’s what she said and all that. Seriously though, I don’t want to sound like a cretin here, and I imagine if I saw the calorie count for this sandwich I might be singing a very different tune, but I do think the size of this sandwich needs to be held against it.
I ate at the Union Square location of Num Pang for the first time on Saturday night with my wife and enjoyed the delicious veal-meatball sandwich. Immediately upon finishing it, I told her that I needed to go back to try to the pork-belly sandwich — the decision that led to this writeup.
Then, after I ate the pork-belly sandwich on Monday, my first thought was that I should go back and try the pulled pork or brisket. Both times, immediately after eating a delicious sandwich, I was thinking about the next sandwich I should eat and not the delicious sandwich I just ate!
Part of that’s on me. Both times I ate a meal at Num Pang it was a couple of hours later than I normally eat that meal, so both times I was quite hungry. And it’s not like they don’t serve sides or the sandwiches are prohibitively expensive.
But at the same time, with a sandwich with this many ingredients, you’re necessarily going to have a limited number of bites that boast the full distribution of stuff. And when it’s this small, it’s like… two. Two bites of sublime, transcendent sandwich awesomeness, and then a bunch of others that are various sub-combinations of the delicious ingredients, hints and notes of the greatness to keep you involved while you search and push and rearrange to try to recapture that grandeur.
Which is to say: It’s a sandwich that leaves you wanting more. Or at least that it’s a sandwich that very decidedly left me wanting more.
What it’s worth: $7.75 plus tax. That might seem steep for a sandwich of this size, but it’s an adequate lunch if you’re not a glutton, plus it’s pretty easy to tell from the taste that they’re using excellent ingredients.
How it rates: 88 out of 100. If you don’t have my appetite you could easily put this in the Hall of Fame though.