Navigating Mantao Chinese Sandwiches, the Midtown Lunch Way
It’s been exactly a month since Mantao Chinese Sandwiches opened up on 53rd btw. 2+3rd. I never got a chance to go to Province Chinese Canteen, its original Tribeca incarnation, but I had always heard good enough things that their move to Midtown got me pretty excited. Plus, I like Chinese food… and I like sandwiches. What could possibly be bad about this place?
Like most places, expectations will have a significant effect on your overall enjoyment of these sandwiches. First off, if you’re expecting something authentically Chinese, you will be very disappointed. The man tao (or chinese buns) they use for bread, are not exactly like the silky smooth, duck stuffed numbers, you might be used to from your favorite Chinatown spot. This version has been converted into a sesame seed topped mini bun type thing. A sweet sweet semi-fluffy sesame topped bun. (No idea if it’s an authentic Chinese preparation, but it’s tasty!)
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of comparisons- don’t even attempt to compare this to the pork buns at Momofuku. It’s would be like comparing a white castle slider to a shake shack burger. It’s not even worth mentioning. Of course that doesn’t mean they still aren’t a good lunch option…
The menu is divided into three sections. The $2.50 sandwich with egg, which is clearly is meant to be a breakfast item. $3.95 buns, with basic meat ingredients like spicy pork, braised pork, chicken, and tofu. Or the “specialty” buns, for $4.50, like short rib and kimchi, Angus beef, and spicy mackerel. They offer a lunchtime combo meal for $9.95 that consists of any two buns, plus salad, and shrimp chips. I did my best to make it through a significant portion of the menu… you know, for work purposes.
Mantao’s “signature” pork bun… also listed as braised pork on some menus ($3.95). If you like pork fat, this will probably be one of your favorite options- and the most likely to draw comparisons to the Momo place will won’t be mentioning. Not the highest quality pork fat you’ve ever eaten (and there can be quite a bit of it), but certainly not bad.
Spicy pork ($3.95). Thinly sliced pork, with some nice fatty bits to it- topped with yellow pickled radishes that you find at most Korean places.
Short rib with kimchi ($4.50). The meat from this bun might come from short ribs, but it helps to think of as being somewhere between bulgogi and galbi on the thickness scale. The fact that it’s paired with kimchi helps the comparison, although the pickled cabbage topping doesn’t have a strong enough flavor to stnad out.) Good, but don’t expect very thick slices of meat, or fall of the bone stewed short ribs…
Angus Beef Burger w/ Spicy Sambal Sauce ($4.50). Speaking of White Castle… don’t go into this one expecting a hamburger. It’s more for the person who likes these sandwiches, but prefers ground beef to slices of pork or beef. Good flavor, but the quality (or lack of quality) of the meat is completely lost when prepared this small and thin.
Spicy Mackerel ($4.50). The funkiest of all the sandwiches, this one should only be ordered by those who love that dry salty fish smell and taste. I liked it, but it’s not for everybody…
Based on this review on Serious Eats: New York, and a warning from Kathy YL Chan- I skipped the pancake rolls, sesame noodles, and dumplings. Good or bad, they sounded overpriced even beyond the “$4.50 is too much for a small Chinese sandwich” level.
So basically, if you like Asian meats, and the sesame topped bun looks appealing to you- you will be into Mantao. For the price, it isn’t anything that’s going to blow anybody away… it just tastes good. Which brings us to the nitty gritty: the price and size. Yes the sandwiches are small. And taken at face value, it is tough to spend $4-5 for each one of these. But taken in the context of a whole lunch (I spent $10 and am full) the combo meal is not too bad. The problem is you need to put some thought into ordering from the combo meal.
It’s $10, and you get to chose any two sandwiches. I hope I don’t have to tell any of you this, but DO NOT order the $2.50 egg sandwich. Even if you add Chinese sausage (making it $3.50), it’s still a terrible deal. Since they let you pick whatever you want, ideally you’ll choose 2 $4.50 sandwiches. That way you’re only spending an extra $1 for shrimp chips and a salad (or, since the chips are $1 you can think of it as getting the salad for free.)
Any other combination and you have to decide if the salad and chips is worth it. Order two of the $3.95, and you’re spending $2 for the shrimp chips and salad. I liked the salad (the dressing was pretty tasty), but you have to decide for yourself if it’s worth the $2. The real problem is I liked the $3.95 sandwiches more than the $4.50 sandwiches. And one of my favorites was the egg with Chinese sausage added (it’s clearly the best value for $3.50.)
Am I overthinking this stuff? Yup. But I can’t help it. I love combo meals (especially when they are under $10), but they always get my brain churning the numbers, trying to decide how good a deal it is. So there it is. The place is more for takeout, but there are a few chairs along the wall available to eat at the bar. They also make each sandwich to order, so you may want to call ahead. If there’s no line ahead of you it shouldn’t take long. But if there is, be prepared to wait awhile. Good luck, and godspeed!
THE + (What somebody who likes this place would say)
- I love Asian sandwiches!
- $10 might be pricey, but there’s nothing like this anywhere else in Midtown- and the combo deal will fill up a normal person
- They have vegetarian options and chicken options (although I didn’t try those…)
THE – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)
- $4.50 for a tiny sandwich? Forget that!
- None of the fillings are out of control good
- Not as good as Momofuku. (People just can’t help themselves.)
- For a Chinese sandwich place, Mantao sure uses a lot of Korean ingredients
- Remember the bing lady? She came from Flushing to the East Village and sold something similar for far less money. I wish she was still around… (anybody know where that lady went?!?)
Mantao Chinese Sandwiches, 235 E. 53rd St. (btw. 2+3rd), 212-888-2490
Check out the menu here.