Q Bakery: Is There a Better Bánh Mì Baguette?

Is it possible that there is a better place in Seattle that serves better bành mì than either Saigon Deli or Seattle Deli? A provocative question here in the Seattle area where the sheer number of places that serve the sandwich means everyone has his or her own favorite. I can say this though. I might’ve found the best place for the Vietnamese baguette. Tucked away in the far corner of a strip mall in Rainier Beach right off MLK Jr Way that also has a Viet Wah supermarket and several Vietnamese-Chinese restaurants, Q Bakery sells bành mì rolls second to none. If there is a lighter, crispier bread—some might argue the most important part of the sandwich—I have yet to find it. With ample parking, it’s a sight easier to pick up a sandwich there than in Little Saigon.

Customers most certainly do come here to buy the bread, many in bulk. Baskets and trays of various kinds of bread greet you at the entrance.

Toward the back is the food service area where prepared hot foods can be ordered and sandwiches made. A few tables inside let customers eat there instead of do take-out. A quick glance at the menu shows kinds of bành mì not readily found in other Vietnamese delis and bakeries. Some of the fillings include head cheese, shredded pork skin and, yes, teriyaki chicken.

Rather than requesting the usual grilled pork, my wife and I decided to try the liver paté and meatball (xíu mại) fillings. Both of them were good (☆☆☆), the meatball mashed and spread rather than left whole or sliced. The pickled vegetables were not as vinegary as we would’ve liked. But, oh, that bread—so airy, light enough that it compressed with ease around the fillings, crackly enough on the outside to send shards of crust raining down on our clothes with every bite. Messy, but ethereal.

Paté bành mì

Paté bành mì

Meatball (xíu mại) bành mì

Meatball (xíu mại) bành mì

If I find my perfect filling at Q Bakery, the bành mì there would supplant Saigon Deli and Seattle Deli as my favorite.

Related post

Q Bakery
3818 S Graham St
Seattle, WA 98118

Bánh mì at 35,000 feet: What’s Wrong with Airline Food?

Why, oh, why? That’s what I keep asking myself. Did I have to fork over $7 for a chicken bánh mì that Alaska Airlines was offering for sale on my flight from Los Angeles to Seattle?

Maybe I can be excused when Los Angeles International Airport has what must be the crappiest food service options of any major airport. Did I want another ham and cheese or chicken salad sandwich to take on board? A garden salad? Nope. Seattle-Tacoma Airport is far superior in its range of dining choices.

I might also be excused because I hadn’t had a substantial enough breakfast earlier that morning, so that by the time I was at cruise altitude at lunchtime, I was maybe a bit famished. Or I just needed to munch on something to pass the time.

OK, I shouldn’t be excused at all for being so naive.

The card in the seat pocket in front of me that listed the meal options described the bánh mì as Alaska’s “take” on the Vietnamese classic. Seattle restauranteur Tom Douglas supplies some of the meals on Alaska flights. Perhaps his magic hand might be involved in the sandwiches? I wondered. Hoped.

Instead, a company called LSG Sky Chefs, based in Seattle, made them. Okay, if you think about that for a moment, does that mean the bánh mì I was about to eat made one trip from the Pacific Northwest to Southern California already before it got put into my hands going in the opposite direction? It came wrapped in foil and was hot to handle. When I removed the wrap, steam came billowing out. And what would you think steam does to a sandwich whose bread is renown for its light crispiness? Instead of a baguette, it was more like a hoagie roll. A soggy one at that. While the chicken, what little there was of it, in combination with a kind of savory mayonnaise spread, could be described as tasty, it was also mushy. To LSG’s credit, the fresh vegetables normally found in bánh mì was wrapped separately in a plastic baggie: unseasoned shredded carrots (instead of vinegary-sweet đồ chua), sliced cucumbers and jalapeños, cilantro sprigs.

alaska banh mi

Credit has to be given to Alaska Airlines for even offering such ethnic fare, itself a proclamation that any old sandwich won’t do. But, in the end, as with most airline food, it was pretty awful, the worst bánh mì I’ve ever had.

I should’ve gone with my instincts, eschewed the very idea that a bánh mì served at 35,000 feet could pass muster.

As for LAX food choices at the gates, boarded off areas advertised that exciting plans were underway to bring in big name chefs to set up operations. Really? Do we need Las Vegas glitz or just good food?

The Pig and the Lady at the KCC Farmers Market (Honolulu, HI)

No sooner did we have an outstanding dinner at The Pig and the Lady last Tuesday than we came across them at the Honolulu Saturday Farmers Market. What was one of Honolulu’s hottest new restaurants doing here?, I wondered. It isn’t so strange, as it turns out, for The Pig and the Lady started out selling Vietnamese street food at farmers markets, appeared as a pop-up restaurant and eventually secured the brick and mortar location in Chinatown in November of last year. On reflection, the operation probably had been around when we visited the market in years past, but we never took notice until now. The tent occupies a larger-than-most space, half of it reserved for customer seating at picnic-style tables. It was a welcome way to get out from under the hot and muggy day.

pig and lady

There were lots on the menu to choose from, but their re-envisioned banh mi sounded appealing, not to mention a cool bowl of bun. Of the seven kinds of sandwiches, the one that Honolulu Magazine in 2013 identified as one of the 100 best dishes and drinks was the one I had no trouble deciding on—Pho French dip. The Laotian fried chicken for dinner that we so enjoyed at dinner sealed our choice for the bun topping.

The idea for dipping banh mi might seem odd at first, but the right filling could rearrange your thinking. Imagine in the sandwich bun a succulent beef brisket that has been slow-roasted for 12 hours, sautéed onions and bean sprouts, fresh cilantro and Thai basil as the primary ingredient in a chimichurri paste, and you could seriously consider dipping the sandwich, the paradigm shift that must’ve occurred in Chef Andrew Le’s creative mind. Then again, he may not have intended the sandwich to be a banh mi at all for all my ramblings-on. To take it a step further, how about using a rich pho jus made from the brisket drippings to complete the conversion to a Vietnamese-inspired French dip? This is one mind-altering, outstanding, messy, expensive ($12) sandwich (☆☆☆☆).

Pho french dip

Pho French dip

The bun didn’t fare as well. The biggest problem was the rice noodles, two sizes, being made ahead of time and suffering textural consequences. They were a tad pasty and dry. Even the remarkable Laotian chicken slices and housemade do chua (shredded radish, sliced carrot rounds and sweet pickles), roasted whole and chopped peanuts, tomato slices, bean sprouts, shredded red cabbage and nuoc cham couldn’t quite mask this flaw, though the flavors were quite good (☆☆☆).

Malaysian chicken bun

Malaysian chicken bun

From here on out, whenever we visit the KCC market, we’ll have to give serious consideration to picking up our meals at The Pig and the Lady. The dishes we had today were the best-tasting ones we’ve had in four visits to the market so far.

Saigon Cafe & Deli: Another Bánh Mì Surprise on the Eastside

On the Eastside, finding a place that sells good bánh mì is a challenge. The choices are much better in Seattle where the concentration of Vietnamese communities and businesses makes it more likely you’d find very good examples of the classic Vietnamese sandwiches. Not too long ago, a friend and I ate at Yeh Yeh in Bellevue that made a pretty good one. Today, we decided to find out what Saigon Cafe & Deli (not related to Saigon Deli in Seattle) had to offer.

The place is tiny, wedged between a dry cleaner and a teriyaki joint in the Factoria commercial area. Inside, there is a short bar with stools, so it would be a stretch to consider Saigon Café a restaurant. Besides bánh mì, the menu lists phở, bún, rice bowls, salads, bubble tea and French drip coffee. I would imagine that most customers do take-out here, so I ordered grilled pork bánh mì (bánh mì thịt nướng) to-go. At $4, it’s a little more expensive than its Seattle brethren’s.

Grilled pork bành mì

Grilled pork bành mì

The sandwich is about 8″ long, the bread cut horizontally down its length except along one edge and stuffed with the grilled pork, đồ chua (carrot and radish pickles), sliced jalapeños, large julienned slices of cucumber, and a liberal amount of cilantro sprigs. The bread itself is thinner than those used at Saigon Deli and Seattle Deli in Little Saigon (Seattle) and softer, with a slight crackly crust. It was also a tad tough as if it spent a little time in the microwave before being wrapped. A clean bite required a good pull between teeth and hands. For that, I downgrade the sandwich. Every other ingredient was top-notch, from the crunch and sweet tartness of the đồ chua, fresh vegetables and a superior and tender grilled pork that filled the mouth with lemongrass, pronounced garlic, honey (or sugar), fish sauce and sesame oil flavors. This bánh mì was one of the better ones (☆☆☆) I’ve had, short of the highest rating only for the less-than-ideal bread issue.

Whether Saigon Café is related or otherwise involved, business cards for The Lemongrass in Little Saigon, where I had an outstanding beef stew, were displayed next to its own.

Update (3-7-14): Saigon’s grilled chicken bánh mì (☆☆☆), like its pork cousin, has a superbly tasty filling, liberal with seasoned garlicky chicken, đồ chua, jalapeño slices, cucumbers and cilantro. It was certainly not lacking in the quantity department. The cilantro was left in sprigs which were pulled out entirely when taking bites. The bread was equally chewy like the pork sandwich, a decided shortcoming compared to the Little Saigon examples. If this is not a big concern, you can do no better than the bành mì here.

Grilled chicken banh mi

Grilled chicken bành mì

Related posts

Saigon Café & Deli
12815 SE 38th St
Bellevue, WA 98006

Banh Mi Usurper on the Eastside? Yeh Yeh’s

Getting a good banh mi sandwich on the Eastside is problematic. Several places sell them, but not exclusively, which doesn’t mean that they’re bad. It’s just that the best places, like those in Seattle, specialize in this delicious Vietnamese sandwich. Much attention is paid to using the freshest bread and preparing the variety of fillings that go in it. A restaurant that happens to offer the sandwich on the side doesn’t bode well for giving it the attention that it deserves.

Yeh Yeh’s has had quite a loyal following in Lynnwood since 2008, surprising since that part of the greater Seattle area is not particularly a haven for Vietnamese cuisine, certainly not like Seattle’s Little Saigon. Food critic Nancy Leson of The Seattle Times has eaten there and liked it. Last year, Yeh Yeh’s opened a branch in Bellevue. It too has developed a following.

A friend of mine and I decided to check things out. The restaurant is located in a strip mall west of Fred Meyer, so parking is not the problem it is in Little Saigon. Inside there are tables for eating in, though not many, all lined up along the south wall in the skinny interior space. The entire menu is sandwiches, not only banh mi but also pastrami, Philly cheese steak and BBQ beef brisket. Whether the last three are riffs on the traditional classics, I might never find out.

I usually order a grilled pork banh mi sandwich, so it was no surprise that I did so here.

A very good sign was that the sandwich (☆☆☆) was served warm, straight out of having been lightly toasted in the oven. The striking visual difference when compared to others I’ve had locally was the bread’s dimensions: wider and shorter, not in the least suggestive of a baguette. One bite was enough to tell me though that the bread lacked for nothing—crispy on the outside, light and tender on the inside, with a delicate chew that all make it possibly the best banh mi (those two words actually refer to the bread, not the sandwich) I’ve sunk my teeth into. Every bite was accompanied by a nice crackly sound.

Unlike its brethren from Saigon Deli and Seattle Deli, the bread is not slightly hollowed out, which means the filling tends to get squeezed out at the opposite end as you munch away. The grilled pork was nicely seasoned with Vietnamese flavors, had good charred taste and was relatively lean. The cucumbers were sliced flat rather than cut as spears like the Seattle versions—not a bad thing, just different, which may have more to do with freeing up space for the prodigious amount of do chua, the pickled carrots and daikon shreds. This quantity is primarily responsible for some reviewers’ comments that this banh mi sandwich is “huge” or “massive,” and the reason I feel it somewhat detracts from the experience as a whole. It tends to overwhelm the flavor of the meat, which some judicious paring down would cure. More than that, the marinade was too spartan in its sweetness and vinegariness, which more salt in the pickling bath would have improved. Whether there were too few cilantro sprigs or not depends on whether you like the herb or hate it. I could’ve used more.

In short, though there were some quibbles I had with the fillings, Yeh Yeh’s serves a very good banh mi sandwich, one which I won’t mind getting here instead of having to drive across the bridge to Seattle. At $3.85, the price isn’t out of line either. And their bread is the bomb.

Grilled pork anh mi sandwich

Update (6-4-14): A return visit did not fare so well. The bread lost its light crispiness of my last outing, being chewier and a bit denser. It’s almost as if the bread was microwaved, though there were only small ovens in view. This was the puzzling part. A second difference was that the do chua was fortunately not as voluminous as before, but it still lacked enough vinegariness and salt that the best examples exhibit. No apparent mayonnaise-like spread or Maggi sauce was evident, which normally adds some savoriness to the sandwich. Yeh Yeh’s banh mi has now become one of my least favorite (☆☆) in the Seattle area.

Yeh Yeh’s Vietnamese Sandwiches
14339 NE 20th St
Suite D
Bellevue, WA 98007

Who’s Got Seattle’s Best Banh Mi, Seattle Deli or Saigon Deli?

We’re fortunate here in the Seattle area to have several delis and bakeries that serve good bánh mì sandwiches, Vietnamese inventions that transform a version of the French baguette into a savory fusion of bread, meat (or tofu) and vegetables. Seattle is one of those lucky cities in America to have a thriving bánh mì culture, a fact that was not lost on the New York Times. The term bánh mì actually refers to the bread itself, but in accordance with common usage, I mean the sandwiches.

One remarkable fact about bánh mì is that they’re cheap. For $3, you can score a pretty decent sandwich. As the Times article warns, “Beware the banh mi over $6.” As a case in point, Monsoon East (an excellent restaurant which I’ve reviewed elsewhere) offers its sandwich at a whopping $13 (cough!). At that price, it had better be a transcendent, out-of-body experience. What price ecstasy?

What makes a great bánh mì? It starts with the bread, a version of the baguette (introduced during colonial times) that is airier than the French version. Some argue that it is the single most important element. The result of mixing wheat and rice flours, it was waiting for a Vietnamese interpretation. The crust should be thin and crispy, with shards falling off when bitten into, the bread with less chew and density than the French. Just any sandwich roll won’t do. I’ve eaten bánh mì in Southern California that was made with a hoagie roll, which is all wrong. The sandwiches are sometimes spread with mayonnaise (another colonial holdover), sometimes squirted with Maggi seasoning or some variation and filled with fresh vegetables, like cucumber, cilantro, chiles and đồ chua (a shredded carrot-and-daikon relish, sweet-tart from vinegar and sugar), and some sort of meat, traditionally pâté, grilled chicken or meatballs, among others. Tofu is also a popular option. My personal favorite is grilled (barbecued) pork. Bánh mì is best eaten within minutes of purchase, the bread warm from being freshly toasted and at the peak of its light, crackly texture.

In local debates, two restaurants seem to emerge as favorites: Saigon Deli and Seattle Deli, which are located in an area of the city called Little Saigon and separated from each other by a mere few blocks. Both places never seem wanting for customers.

I was introduced first to Saigon Deli several years ago. Later, I began to hear partisan support for Seattle Deli’s bánh mì. So, last year, my wife and I tried their pork sandwich for the first time. Afterward, we both agreed that, while Seattle Deli’s version had much to commend it, we still slightly preferred Saigon’s. What exactly are the differences?

Taking a cue from a comparison we did between two North Shore shrimp trucks on Oahu, we decided to conduct a side-by-side tasting, with our daughter weighing in, too.

Saigon Deli's sandwich on the left, Seattle Deli's on the right

Saigon Deli’s sandwich on the left, Seattle Deli’s on the right

Laid out side-by-side, there were no obvious differences, both less than a foot long (see above). Opening them like a book revealed similar fillings, cucumber spears running along the length of the sandwiches, plenty of cilantro sprigs, sliced jalapeños and đồ chua, with Seattle Deli’s juliénned larger. Both were spread with mayonnaise, though Saigon Deli’s was yellower, perhaps mixed with Maggi. So, again no big visual difference.

It was after we took our first bite that things started to crystallize. Saigon Deli’s đồ chua was sweeter and more vinegary, a fine counterpoint to the pork filling. The contrast between the two grilled pork fillings was also clear. Saigon’s was chunkier, more grilled but gristlier. Seattle Delis version was thinly sliced, therefore easier to bite through, and leaner. Both had lemongrass notes, were slightly sweet and tasted of nước mắm. The flavors, though different, were both excellent, our choice leaning toward Seattle Deli’s.

Now to the all-important bread. Both delis hollowed them out enough to surround the fillings that might otherwise squeeze out at the opposite end and both had the all-important crispy yet light texture. Seattle Deli’s loaf was larger in circumference, which meant proportionally more bread. To us, Saigon Deli won the contest, exhibiting somewhat more lightness, moistness and tenderness.

Overall, then, the three of us unanimously crowned Saigon Deli the winner of the taste-off, even though we preferred Seattle Deli’s pork filling. Still, both are excellent sandwiches and the differences we noted were slight. You can’t go wrong with either. We’re truly fortunate in Seattle.

I should add that both places serve hot and cold food to-go. The hot foods are kept in steam table trays behind glass counters. Simply order the amount you need, which turns out to be pretty inexpensive. Cold foods, including quite a selection of dessert items, are sold in plastic tubs that you pick up and pay for at the cashier. I really dig the two items below the bánh mì ratings.

Saigon Deli’s barbecue pork bánh mì: ☆☆☆☆
Seattle Deli’s barbecue pork bánh mì: ☆☆☆½
Saigon Deli’s xiu mai (pork meatballs): ☆☆☆☆
Seattle Deli’s green papaya salad with dried beef strips: ☆☆☆½

Update (8-29-15): I’ve been to Q Bakery three times since this post and decided that I’ve come across the best baguette, even better than Saigon Deli’s, as close to perfection as such bread is likely to get. Q is, after all, a bakery and it happens to sell bánh mì sandwiches, bubble teas and other prepared foods. I’ve seen many customers just buy the breads, the various kinds stacked on racks by the entrance. The bánh mì fillings are things like headcheese, shredded pork skin, paté, as well as chicken, meatballs, and pork. I’ve had the paté and meatball, but these are too pasty in a sandwich for my personal taste. The grilled pork (bánh mì thịt nướng) is made very much like Seattle Deli’s, seasoned and thinly sliced and quite good. Despite the fact that my wife and I both prefer Saigon’s đồ chua, which is more seasoned and more vinegary, Q Bakery’s pork bánh mì is right there among the very best in Seattle, maybe even at the top by a small margin because of that ineffable, mind-altering baguette. If it weren’t so far to get to, I’d go there much more often.

Update: Unfortunately, Seattle Deli has closed because of redevelopment. We wish owner Thach Nguyen luck in relocating to a nearby location.

Meatball (xíu mại) báhn mì

Q Bakery’s meatball (xíu mại) báhn mì

Saigon Deli
1237 S Jackson St
Seattle, WA 98144
Seattle Deli
225 12th Ave S
Seattle, WA 98144
Q Bakery
3818 S Graham St
Seattle, WA 98118