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All You Can Eat

Trend-setting restaurants, Northwest cookbooks, local food news and the people who make them happen.

March 3, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Banh mi unwrapped, Vietnamese sandwiches we love

Last month, when The New York Times took readers on a cross-country tour of banh mi stops — most notably to one of the leading centers of Vietnamese sandwich culture: Seattle — national debate ensued. Rabble roused, folks weighed in on the sandwich that gives a good name to the words “fast food” and commonly costs less than a Big Mac.

What constitutes a proper banh mi? Baguette crisp enough to drop a flurry of crumbs on your shirt, with an interior soft enough to embrace the proffered protein, for one thing. Mayo and freshly pickled do chua (carrot and daikon), plus slivered cucumber, cilantro and hot chilies for another.

Rising to the bait, I responded in a blog post, giving the big-thumbs up to my banh mi “best” — Yeh Yeh’s in Lynnwood, where I regularly have a tough time choosing between the tenderly rendered grilled pork or chicken overstuffed (or perfectly stuffed if you ask me) with do chua. Readers gave a shout-out to their local favorites.

Raves came in for Q Bakery on South Graham Street, noting their house-baked bread, and for the “fantastic foot-long banh mi” at nearby Tammy’s Bakery. And I’m forever in debt to those who directed me to the Rainier Valley shopping center where Tony’s Bakery & Deli sits in the shadow of Viet Wah.

Jacklyn Tran, showing us what’s in store at Tony’s Bakery & Deli, named for her brother Tony: banh mi, and then some. [Seattle Times Ellen Banner]

There, I was blown away by the quality of the bread baked on premise, the quantity of deli extras on display and a sandwich board hooked on classics (pork, ham and tofu among them). I stifled a sob when I learned they were out of the popular daily special, five-spice smoked duck, then rallied after I bit into another — lemongrass basa (Vietnamese whitefish), fried crisp and light with an added attraction: a vivid schmear of garlic-chive oil.

Hugh “Hootie” Clark at Issaquah Cedar and Lumber wrote, “Whenever one of us ventures into Seattle, there is always a stop at Banh Cuon Tan Dinh Deli,” in Little Saigon off 12th and Jackson. “We buy 10 to 15 sandwiches for the staff. We stop there prior to all Sounders games and take our dinner to the game.”

Seattle’s Little Saigon’s banh mi rivalry is particularly fierce. I’ve long been a fan of Seattle Deli (now with an Edmonds branch). But many prefer to head across the street to Saigon Deli which got the big nod from The New York Times.

Banh mi and other goodies from Seattle Deli (left), and a quintet of Saigon Deli’s finest.

Seattle Deli was fine until they started overcooking their pork,” claims one reader — and I agree. But another asserts, “I don’t know how any banh mi can be better than Seattle Deli’s. Their BBQ pork, which is really a grilled pork, is just fantastic, especially for $2.50.”

I’ve come to prefer Saigon Deli, where I sampled a quintet of sandwiches. I’m fond of their pork, fish and fried tofu, but my top pick is the Chinese-style “red pork” — a salty mouthful that won’t be for everyone.

“Red pork” sandwich from Saigon Deli. [Seattle Times Courtney Blethen Riffkin]

Elsewhere, the pork sandwich at Pho Cyclo— in Sodo and on Broadway East — pleases readers who appreciate the balance of sweet meat and heat. Pho Bothell gets votes for its “amazing sauce” — though purists might raise an eyebrow at praise for “the hoagie-type of bread that doesn’t have any sharp edges.” Go Deli in Renton has a following for 17 varieties of banh mi including classic combos of pork roll, pate, head cheese and ham.

Seattle chefs are hip to the banh mi trip. Monsoon’s Eric Banh (who has the right name for the job), was among the first to take the sandwich upmarket at his Baguette Box cafes on Capitol Hill and in Fremont. But you’ll also find the locavores reinventing the meal at Matt’s in the Market and Madison Park Conservatory (pork belly), Eastlake’s Nettletown (elk meatballs) and Ballard’s Root Table (curried salmon).

But when it comes to sit-down sandwich eating, the hands-on favorite is Ballard’s Monkey Bridge, say a multitude of readers. How right they are. Lemongrass wafts from their beef-stuffed baguette. It’s food enough for two paired with a complimentary cup of soup — a commendable congee on my visit to this attractive art-filled enclave. This meal, though twice as much as you’ll pay at your local Vietnamese deli, is still a bargain at less than $6.

Banh mi bo — this was one juicy beef sandwich — at the Monkey Bridge in Ballard.

Did we miss your favorite? Feel free to chime in right here.

Comments | More in | Topics: Asian Restaurants, Nancy's Restaurant Roundups

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