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
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 Deli‘s 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.
Q Bakery’s meatball (xíu mại) báhn mì
1237 S Jackson St
Seattle, WA 98144
225 12th Ave S
Seattle, WA 98144
3818 S Graham St
Seattle, WA 98118