Transforming Soup To Sandwich: The P.H.O. Real

Most neighborhoods have one: the mysterious, hidden eatery, beloved by locals and unknown to outsiders. When I first heard rumors of a hidden sandwich shop in New York's East Village, I was struck by two major questions: first, how can anything remain hidden for long in New York City? Second, how do I get there?

The answer to the first question lies in location. Sunny and Annie's Gourmet Deli sits on the edge of Alphabet City, a section of lower Manhattan that hasn't quite left the grotty 1990s behind. While wine bars and trendy restaurants dot the area and the homeless people in nearby Tompkins Square Park sometimes share their turf with young parents and laughing children, the neighborhood still has an air of danger. Alphabet City is where the hip fake edginess of the tattoo shops and cheap bars near New York University hits the real edginess of an honest-to-goodness bad neighborhood that hasn't forgotten its roots.

When Sunny and Annie Yum opened their place 10 years ago, they soon realized that the area's strange mix of sophisticates and derelicts was going to require a particular kind of creativity. "In the East Village, people don't want the regular thing," Sunny explains. "They want something particular. They want something special." In other words, the basic bacon, egg and cheese on a roll wasn't going to cut it. "I have a lot of rent to pay, so I had to make new, different kinds of sandwiches."

Sunny took to the kitchen: "I tried this way, I tried that way," he remembers. "I worked for one month, two months." Before long, he began adding his own creations to the menu, one-of-a-kind sandwiches that were unlike anything the neighborhood had seen before. Some of his creations had prosaic names like the Kimchee Bulgogi, a roll that evoked the flavors of the Yum's native Korea. Others, like the "John Carry," "Mr. Bloomberga" and "Bush Sandwich" referenced local and national political figures. "I had to make different spellings so they wouldn't sue me," Sunny laughs.

For the last 10 years, Sunny has continued to add to his collection of sandwiches, an ever-growing menu that covers the walls of his deli. His personal favorite is the John Carry, a pile of lemon chicken, chipotle peppers, fresh mozzarella, avocado, onions, tomato and cilantro served on a roll. For most of his customers, however, the Yum's signature creation is the P.H.O. Real, a roast beef sandwich that evokes the flavors — and textures — of Vietnamese pho soup. Since its debut, the sandwich has built a large, loyal following that regularly sings its praise.

On the surface, the sandwich is simplicity itself, starting off with the same base ingredients as its namesake: roast beef, bean sprouts, basil, cilantro and onions, with a touch of hoisin sauce and a smear of sriracha. What makes the P.H.O. Real work, however, are its departures: a few slices of avocado evoke the slick mouthfeel of noodles, while sliced tomato brings to mind the tangy flavor of Vietnamese broth. Encased in a hollowed-out deli roll, the finished product manages to create a perfect illusion: it brings to mind the bright, vibrant flavors of its namesake soup, yet contains nary a noodle nor a drop of stock.

When I first talked to the Yums, Annie sternly told me "Don't give away our secrets!" and I certainly take her directive to heart. I have not tried to reverse-engineer the P.H.O. Real, so the quantities and ratios that produce its unique culinary alchemy remain known to the Yums and the few employees that they have taken into their confidence. But the real secret is already known to any fan of Vietnamese food: stripped of rich sauces and heavy spices, the country's cuisine doesn't have room for bad ingredients. In a sandwich as simple and balanced as the P.H.O. Real, wilted basil or second-rate roast beef would stick out like a pimp in Sunday school. Sunny and Annie's ingredients, needless to say, are incredibly fresh; every flavor stands out clearly, held together by a setting of fresh roll and light sauces.

While the P.H.O. Real has already become his calling card, Sunny isn't finished creating new sandwiches; in fact, he's already planning a new one for this fall's elections. "Maybe I'll call it the Mitt Roomney or the Mitt Rommey," he muses. "It's coming soon...just as soon as I figure out his personality."

Sunny and Annie's Gourmet Deli, 94 Ave. B, New York, 212.677.3131