Your First Look at Bai Cha, The Hell’s Kitchen SE Asian Street Food Stand

Bai Cha Exterior

I love seeing scrappy underdog restaurants pop up out of nowhere. Word-of-mouth publicity from readers of Midtown Lunch carries a lot more weight with me than slick advertising campaigns. So, yesterday, when we heard through the grapevine about a new (but slightly-out-of-bounds) restaurant that serves Southeast Asian street food, our interest was piqued. On paper and in concept, I was instantly sold – Thai inspired papaya salads, Malaysian satay skewers and roti’s and what’s that… a BANH MI? To borrow a quote from Anthony Bourdain, I would cheerfully “crawl naked across broken glass” for a good banh mi. It’s my absolute favorite food, ever.

I was so excited for the prospect of good Malay and Viet food, that I skipped a work happy hour (sorry co-workers that may be reading this) and voyaged over to 9th ave to get my banh mi fix. So do we finally have a bonafide banh mi in Midtown West?

Bai Cha Banh Mi

I would be reluctant to call this banh mi ($5.50) a ‘good banh mi’. In fact, I would be hesitant to call it a banh mi at all. All three types of pork make an appearance – a thin shmear of pate, somewhat rubbery terrine, and a smattering of roast pork, barely noticeable under the heavy layer of mayonnaise. But the classic elements of a banh mi were missing. The carrots were un-pickled and there was no detectable fish sauce, cilantro or heat. It may be a serviceable pork sandwich at best, but my quest for a good banh mi in Midtown West continues.

Green Papaya Salad

In contrast to the mild sandwich, their papaya salad ($6.50) brought a bit too much heat. Though tongue numbingly spicy, beyond the torrid chilis, I could at least detect that the salad was fresh, crunchy, and would likely taste delicious if I had any taste buds remaining. Actually now that I think about it… add a bit of this to the sandwich instead of the un-pickled veg, get rid of 3/4 of the mayo, and you could have a winner.

Bai Cha Satay Skewers

With a name like “Two satays in a cup” ($3.50), I simply had to investigate. As an aside, I could suggest future dish names along the same theme… stewed goatse curry, double rainbow trout almondine, tubgrilled steak… for the lulz. Both satays, a red curry chicken and curry beef, were pleasantly flavored – earthy and fragrant from the curry and coconut milk, with an appropriate level of spice. However the beef was a bit tough, and the chicken gristly.

Despite some flaws in execution, I do feel compelled to return. Though they’re a new operation, they’ve got enough experience from Chili Thai to get their flavors correct. And I’m certainly intrigued by their vegetarian options, such as the veggie bibimbap ($6.50), roti with massaman curry ($2), and to give the papaya salad another try, this time with less spice. And maybe, just maybe, I can convince them to serve a ‘goatse curry’ along with their ‘two satay in one cup’.

Bai Cha Menu

The + (What somebody who likes this would say)

  • I love Malay, Viet and Thai food, and I love Banh Mi’s regardless of quality.
  • The food is inexpensive and filling.
  • There’s enough vegetarian options to keep my veg co-worker satisfied
  • The place just opened!  Give ‘em a chance to get settled…

The – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)

  • The banh mi is just meh.
  • This place is way out of Midtown lunch bounds
  • The overall food quality is only OK

Bai Cha, 710 9th Ave (between 48th & 49th). 212-315-9667

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