If you spent your Saturday afternoon surrounded by Hindu evangelists playing bongos, homeless men battling strangers in chess, and inter-racial gay couples making out like it’s going out of style, chances are, you were in New York’s Union Square. Tourists often believe that Time Square is the epicenter of Manhattan; that’s what makes them tourists. Time Square is populated by tourists and subpar sandwich locales, whereas Union Square is a meeting ground of real New Yorkers, steeped in tradition, saturated with skateboard punks and organic maple syrup stands, steadfastly watched over by a statue of George Washington mounted atop horse. But what is it about Union Square that draws this city’s denizens?
Sure, there are a multitude of reasons to venture out: some to peruse the ultra-yuppie Greenmarket vendors, others as a point of transit on their way to the constantly-broken subway system below, still others come to stare at the mysterious Metronome and its ominously fluctuating numbers. In such times, it’s easy to forget what Union Square is, and why it exists. Like any public square, it is a place to gather, where people intrinsically flock in times of tragedy, conflict, and celebration.
Who put the “Union” in Union Square? Why, the Union of course. The name originated following the preliminary shots of the Civil War at Fort Sumter, causing New Yorkers to congregate in the hundreds of thousands in the city’s public square. At the time, it was likely the largest public assembly the United States had ever seen. It has since been a breeding ground of mass gatherings, a hub of protesters, revolutionaries, and anyone focused on general “sticking-it-to-the-man” activities.
You like having Labor Day off? You’re damn right you do, and you can thank 1882’s initial Labor Day for that, where over ten thousand Central Labor Union workers marched in solidarity for workers rights and because, hell, we all deserve a day off once in a while.
In recent years, its significance as a public forum has not diminished. Following the horrors of 9/11, Union Square became the grounds for a public vigil, where New Yorkers gathered with flowers and photos, scrawling messages and prayers in chalk along the pavement, searching for some kind of repose in the tragedy. Ironically, not long thereafter it was used as a hotbed for protestors of the ensuing War with Iraq.
In addition to these poignant moments in our nation’s history, Union Square has hosted numerous other significant moments: Irish radicals in 1865, an anarchist bomber in 1908, and modern day protests ranging from gay rights to freeing Tibet. Sometimes, though, on a Saturday afternoon in Union Square, when you’re swimming through a mass of dubious yuppies attempting to purchase six pounds of non-GMO kale from a bald guy with a ponytail, it is easy to forget the history and gravity of this concrete expanse.
And, for those of you who aren’t in the know, the Metronome, the massive ticking numbers, located on the south side of Union Square, is neither a doomsday device nor a summation of our national debt. It’s actually just a really elaborate and confusing clock. Going from left to middle, are hours, minutes, and seconds elapsed in the day so far, on the right, the hours, minutes and seconds remaining. They are like reverse mirror images of one another, separated by an always changing middle number in the center.
Week 11: Num Pang
If you do happen to find yourself in the Union Square area, and you’re hankering for a sandwich, venture no further than Num Pang. The first of five locations, chefs Ratha Chaupoly and Ben Daitz opened this spot in 2009 and it has since erupted in popularity. To give you an idea of how hot this shop is, the first page of Google search results for “cambodian sandwich” yields only Num Pang reviews, press, and information.
What is a Cambodian sandwich? If you recall my second blog post, it has a fair amount in common with Bánh mì (Vietnamese) style sandwiches: both feature chili mayo, cucumber, pickled carrots, and cilantro, creating a delicate sweet and spicy base to counteract the saltiness of the meat. However, “Bánh mì” is actually the name of the bread, specific to Vietnamese bakeries, whereas these Khmer sammies are served in Semolina rolls. That, and they bring the meat.
It’s visible upon arrival. You order in front of an open kitchen, where the meat has no place to hide. The most popular is a five spice pulled pork, cooked in an oven that “has never been turned off.” Marinated in a glaze that includes maple syrup and then charred on the grill, it makes for a valiant hero.
However, if you’re anything like me, you’ll go for the peppercorn catfish. Seasoned to perfection, with a tender swipe of “house made sweet soy sauce,” this salty seafood achieves a perfect harmony with its sister flavors in a way that just begs to be masticated.
The list doesn’t stop there. There’s also roasted salmon with leeks and chili yogurt, skirt steak, grilled Khmer sausage, coconut tiger shrimp, and spicy organic tofu with ginger soy honey-glaze. Thirteen sandwiches in all, depending on season. No modifications are allowed though, because screw you, they got it right the first time.
Served up alongside their seasonal market pickles, a colorful blend of green, white, and purple, spicy, strange and satisfying treats and a bowl of their curry red lentil soup, you’ve got yourself a light, yet satisfying eating experience. Wash it down with some of their ginger apple cider, or blood orange lemonade, and pay it all with their brand new app, the Num Pang App.
Far and away, one of the most worthwhile sandwich ventures I’ve had. Highly recommended.
Also - just got on that Twitter game @nysandwichpro. If you're into that sort of thing.