Starting a business is tough — even more so in New York City. But Cambodian sandwich shop Num Pang has managed to thrive and expand beyond.
The restaurant, started in 2009 by college friends Ratha Chaupoly and Ben Daitz, makes expertly crafted and outrageously delicious banh-mi sandwiches. It has consistently topped several “best of” lists, including Zagat’s 2017 NYC Fast-Casual Survey.
And while this may not be the typical fast-casual joint — modifications are not allowed here — the chain has taken off with a loyal clientele. A new location that opened at the Prudential Center in Boston earlier this year could prove fertile testing grounds for further expansion.
It’s no secret I’m a huge fan of Num Pang, and the frequency of my lunches there would be embarrassing if it weren’t so delicious. I decided to head over to one and show why this sandwich chain is drawing some major attention, and why it could become a force in fast-casual dining in cities nationwide.
I headed to Num Pang's NoMad location at 1129 Broadway, which is dangerously close to our offices. Such proximity is a gift and a curse.
It's typically pretty busy, and I headed in in the prime lunchtime hours. The space is no-frills and small, but comfortable, with some wild graffiti art on some of the walls.
Despite the crowd, the line moved shockingly fast. It's a good thing I know the menu so well, or I would have been stumped when I got to the register. They offer a selection of regular sandwiches plus a bunch of seasonal specials, along with soups, salads, and both noodle and rice bowls.
The drink selection is pretty extensive, too -- wine, beer, soda, and their amazing freshly squeezed juices and specialty drinks.
They bottle their own juice drinks, with delicious options like lemon gingerade, sweet mango, blood-orange lemonade, black tea, and a lemonade and tea half-and-half.
The wait was just as short, maybe five minutes. Depending on the rush and the order, it can take from four to eight minutes. I chose the peppercorn-catfish sandwich and the spicy grilled-pork rice bowl. And you have to grab their special hot sauce too.
And of course I can never resist the drinks. I went with sweet-mango and blood-orange lemonade to balance out the tangy and the sweet. The sweet-mango juice is smooth and fruity, and it tastes like real mango -- likely because it really is mango. The blood-orange lemonade is refreshingly sour and a tad sweet.
First, the classic Num Pang sandwich. Apart from the meat or protein, the recipe is essentially the same with each sandwich. Each one is encased in a freshly baked semolina baguette with a perfectly crunchy shell and fluffy inside. There's a quinoa-bread option, too.
I can't have any of the sandwiches without Num Pang's wicked hot sauce. It's vinegary and acidic, but not unpleasantly so. It has a light chilli flavour with a sharp and cutting heat that's the perfect addition to every sandwich on the menu. It's delicious as is, but the hot sauce takes the sandwich to the next level.
To see the simple beauty of Num Pang's sandwich, just open it up. The signature chilli mayo is cool, yet holds a slow heat tempered by the cucumber slices and the bright cilantro flavour.
Underneath the hot sauce (applied by me) is a mound of pickled carrots atop a huge fillet of catfish lightly glazed with a sweet soy sauce and peppercorn. Despite being one of the best, it's also one of the cheapest sandwiches on the menu.
This is always my go-to favourite here. The catfish is always moist and flaky -- perfectly cooked. The sweet soy sauce wonderfully compliments the strong, tangy heat of the hot sauce and chilli mayo, all within the substantial baguette. The sandwich size is pretty big, but I always wish it were bigger if only to enjoy it longer.
The grilled-pork rice bowl is steaming hot, and the second the top comes off, the hypnotic smell of the jasmine rice billows out. The roasted vegetables are outstanding, and everything is lightly drizzled in a chilli yogurt and chive-lime vinaigrette.
The pork is a tad tough but well seasoned, and while it's certainly spicy, it's a manageable heat made all the more pleasant by the yogurt.
Num Pang caters, too. And as a former intern myself, let me wholeheartedly agree with this napkin holder's sentiment.
The sandwiches are a perfect serving for a quick but incredible lunch -- and the rice bowls are big enough to save half for later. In a word: perfection.
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