Bite of Montreal in Vancouver: Poutine and Bagels

In a city known for its international cuisine, including my personal favorites of Japanese izakaya and ramen and Chinese restaurants in nearby Richmond worthy of Hong Kong, I’ve come across really tasty examples of not local (i.e., Northwest) food but grub transplanted from Montreal.

No doubt you’ve heard of poutine, the Québécois fast-food combination of French fries, cheese curds and gravy. At first, the thought of it wasn’t all that appealing to me, but then I realized that Yanks drench their fries in ketchup, chili or even melted cheese, so the concept of smothering fried potatoes with sauce is not just a Canadian thing. Over a year ago, I had very good poutine at Fritz European Fry House in Vancouver, judged mainly on its gravy, a deeply satisfying, savory bombshell. There were a few hiccups.  Starting off very crispy, the fries softened under all that hot gravy and the cheese curds melted and became stringy.

Poutine at Fritz's European Fry House

Poutine at Fritz’s European Fry House

While in town again, I was looking at a Vancity internet map last month when I noticed another poutinerie (that also sells hot dogs) only blocks from our hotel. Mean Poutine is only a counter operation on Nelson near Granville. There is nowhere to sit though you can stand and eat at the counter. My wife got a single order for takeaway and brought it back to our room. I didn’t see any visible gravy, though the fries were clearly wet. I thought it odd that it seemed to have disappeared, more like dissolved into the potatoes. The fries were cut thinner than Fritz’s but they were superior, having a double-fried texture and a very thin batter that gave them an appealing crunchiness. The curds also kept their shape. An interesting twist, one which I liked, was the addition of sliced green onions.

Mean Poutine

Mean Poutine

Many Canadians eat these snacks late at night, which explains why Fritz is open until 2am-4am, depending on day of the week, and Mean Poutine until 4am. This is not a good idea if you’re trying to keep the poundage off.

Great bagels on the West Coast are hard to find. The ones here tend to be softer than their East Coast counterparts, verging on being bread-like. I’ve heard East Coasters complain about western bagels. In college in L.A., I had a Jewish buddy from New Jersey who more than once made the same claim. And so did Joel Siegel when he moved from Montreal to Vancouver. He decided to open Siegel’s Bagels in 1990. He incorporated his vast experience that he accumulated while working at a Montreal bagel shop. The bagels would be boiled in a kettle, baked on shivas in a 25-ton wood-burning stone-hearth oven. At the original Kitsilano location and the newer one on Granville Island, you can watch them being made.

Siegel’s bagels are seriously good. The bagel can by itself be an object of meditation: what the perfect one should be like. They have the requisite crispy exterior, a chewy inside and modest size that make almost all bagels I’ve had before pale in comparison. Lack of added salt also makes Montreal bagels taste sweet. For me, they find their greatest expression in the form of Siegel’s signature Montreal smoked meat sandwich on a sesame bagel. Siegel’s has not only transplanted the quintessential Montreal-style bagel to Vancouver, it also imports (weekly) smoked brisket from Montreal, which is then thinly sliced and heated in-house in portion steamers. All that’s needed is a slathering of plain yellow mustard to complete a whole that is greater than its parts, at once chewy, crispy, nutty, salty, sweet, tart and savory in perfect balance. The whole thing yields to nearly effortless bites, never a jaw-tiring or sandwich-deforming exercise that denser bread would produce.

Siegel's smoked meat bagel sandwich

Siegel’s smoked meat bagel sandwich is a masterpiece

Vancouver is lucky to have a taste of Montreal in its own backyard, and so am I with only a three-hour drive away.

Fritz European Fry House
718 Davie St
Vancouver, BC
(604) 684-0811

Mean Poutine
718 Nelson St
Vancouver, BC
(604) 568-4351

Siegel’s Bagels (Granville Island Public Market)
1689 Johnston St #22
Vancouver, BC
(604) 685-5670

Siegel’s Bagels (Kitsilano)
1883 Cornwall Avenue
Vancouver, BC
(604) 737-8151

Super Sandwiches from WiseGuy Italian Street Food

It’s been several years that I’ve passed by the stand that sells Italian sandwiches at the Issaquah Farmers Market. I’ve tried most of the other food vendors’ fare, and none of them has left a lasting impression. That was about to change. WiseGuy Italian Street Food serves two hot hero sandwiches: sausage and pepper and Italian meatball. There are big pans of each filling cooking over stoves that attract passersby. Though WiseGuy at the market operates under a canopy, it normally is a food truck operation that roams the east side of Lake Washington.

Sausage and pepper filling

Sausage and pepper filling



How better to sandwich both fillings than using Le Panier‘s baguette, a wonderfully light bread with a thin, crackly crust. It could almost be suitable for banh mi. (Le Panier’s pastries and sandwiches, served at Pike Place Market, are fantastic in their own right.) Each sandwich uses one-third of a loaf.

The foundations of the best Italian meatball sandwiches are flavorful, succulent meatballs, a great marinara and the right bread, neither too soft nor thickly crusty. WiseGuy delivers on all counts. The bread is sliced in half horizontally like a book, packed with humongous meatballs and sauced. The marinara is terrific with no dominating herbal notes. Instead of using mozzarella, grated provolone is sprinkled along the cut length. Not a bad thing, just different. The only problem, if I can call it that, is the colossal size of the meatballs which are difficult to sink your teeth into; the sauce acts like lubricant that slides the meat down the bread. Only taking a bigger than normal bite or attacking the sandwich from above makes any progress. Unhinging your jaws works, too. Apart from that, what a great sandwich, as good as we’ve had in a long time. (☆☆☆☆)

Meatball sandwich with marinara

Meatball sandwich with marinara

The most popular sandwich seems to be the sausage and pepper hero. The way the sandwich is constructed is interesting. A plastic rod nearly as wide in diameter as the bread is pushed into the cut end but not all the way through, forming a deep pocket into which is stuffed the filling. The technique may seem gimmicky but it is quick and an inspired way to keep the stuffing contained. The sausage flavor is excellent, the red bells perfectly cooked and the filling spicy from dried red pepper flakes. The sandwich is the ideal combination of bread and savory, zesty and spicy Italian flavors. (☆☆☆☆)

Sausage and pepper hero

Sausage and pepper hero

We enjoyed these last week, enough so that we made it a point to go back to the market today and try some variations.

An alternative to the sausage hero is a combination of sausages and meatball. The same hollowed-out baguette is mostly filled with the sausages and peppers. The last couple of inches is plugged with a single giant meatball. I’ll call it The Corker because it doesn’t appear on WiseGuy’s menu. Many customers order it this way. Whether in the future I have The Corker or not will depend on my mood that day. (☆☆☆☆)

To address the slipping meatball problem, my wife got the option wherein—you guessed it—the meatballs are instead stuffed into an excavated loaf. So as not to skimp on the sauce, the server drizzles a spoonful of marinara in between each ball. Sure enough, no more slippage. But even so, part of the ecstatic pleasure of eating a meatball sandwich is the marinara itself, lots of it, which clearly a stuffed sandwich severely restricts. You trade convenience for sloppiness. In yet a third variation, you can get the traditional sliced bread with meatballs cut in half.

WiseGuy Italian Street Food
Issaquah Farmers Market and food truck

No ‘Garbage’ Here: Luigi’s Italian Sandwiches (Medford, OR)

I thought I was in the wrong area, looking for Luigi’s Italian Sandwiches, surrounded by Macy’s, J. C. Penney, The Gap, Sports Authority, and the like. A neighborhood joint was what I was expecting. Then, I saw it, a small building sitting on the corner of Ohio and N Riverside, across the street from the sprawling Rogue Valley Mall.

I’m guessing little has changed since 1969 when Luigi’s first opened. There are a paltry few places to sit down outside, still more room than the few stools lined up next to a small counter along the south side of the walk-in area, no more than eight-ft square. It’s best to order take-out or eat in your car, which you can park in an equally small, tight lot.

Luigi's Italian Sandwiches

Luigi’s Italian Sandwiches

A dozen people were crammed inside, most of them waiting for their orders to be filled. The menu is thankfully perched above everyone’s head, easy to read. For me, it would be an obvious choice, the Garbage Grinder (labeled ‘World Famous’), the sandwich that brought Luigi’s fame. My wife spotted on the menu Luigi’s meatball sandwich, conjuring up visions of Pizza Napoli’s near LAX (now closed). All sandwiches can be ordered in three sizes: small (6″), regular (8″) or large (12″). We each ordered the small.

There are nine kinds of grinders, each with different fillings (including a vegetarian). All of them are served open-faced, exactly as they come out of the small, flat, stainless steel oven, like a pizza. And there the similarity to the pie doesn’t end because the bread is more pizza-like than, say, French roll, having a denser chew and developing a crackly exterior as it bakes. It is also thin, which places the emphasis as it should on the toppings. The ‘Garbage’ (image above) has salami, ham and pepperoni, two kinds of melted cheese (one of which is mozzarella) and their ‘secret’ sauce. After baking, the sandwich is topped with fresh vegetables: mild sliced onions, half moons of Roma tomatoes, green bell peppers, pickles, olive oil and something called EZ salt. Every sandwich is made-to-order, which can end up in a long wait when there are lots of customers, but the result is piping hot. Fold the sandwich over in half and eat. The Garbage Grinder (☆☆☆☆) is my third excellent dish I’ve enjoyed on this road trip.

The meatball sandwich came on a French roll. It too is baked, with a smear of house-made spaghetti sauce and minced onion and bell peppers and sliced mushrooms. My wife liked the sandwich (☆☆☆), especially its savory meatballs, though she prefers the southern Italian version which has a zestier sauce (marinara) and more of it, and no visible aromatic vegetables.

Meatball sandwich

Meatball sandwich

On the wall is a map of the U.S. where customers can place a push pin where they’re from. Started in February of this year, there were at least three pins from all 50 states, a remarkable statistic. It would be interesting if there was also a map of the world. Luigi’s claims to make 150-200 sandwiches per day. Is Luigi’s an excuse to stop in Medford when passing through again? It would be a great temptation, I’ll say that.

Luigi’s Italian Sandwiches
1819 N Riverside Ave
Medford, OR

Pastrami Dip Sandwich at The Hat (Alhambra, CA)

At the risk of repeating my previous post’s circumstances, I can’t recall how many times I’d driven past The Hat in Alhambra (California) and not stopped. Though I live in Seattle, my in-laws live in the restaurant mecca of the San Gabriel Valley. As if by self-proclamation, “World Famous Pastrami” plastered on signage dares you to pull into the parking lot. This location of The Hat has been there since 1951, which by itself should’ve provided incentive enough (if not curiosity) for me. Still, it wasn’t until my friend KirkJ enthused over the sandwich he and his wife had at another location in Southern California that I finally decided to sample the sandwich.

Both Johnnie’s and The Hat are fast-food restaurants, not delis. More than that, theirs are pastrami dip sandwiches in which the bread is moistened with the meat’s steaming juices, a style endemic to Southern California. Rather than pastrami slices being served on rye bread, French rolls are used, being closer in concept to a roast beef sandwich au jus. (To be fair, Johnnie’s and The Hat do have a pastrami sandwich on rye, but their fame rests with dips.) It may be that rolls are better able to withstand dipping without disintegrating, but this is my own guess. The real reason may very well be more historical than practical. The other important distinguishing characteristic is that the meat is mechanically sliced very thinly, about 116“. Many a great pastrami restaurant pride themselves on hand slicing. Purists may balk at the likes of The Hat for being nothing like what is traditional on the East Coast (most famously the Jewish delis of New York City), citing the “classic” pastrami sandwich at Langer’s Deli on Alvarado in L.A., served with cole slaw and rye bread, as being more authentic. I’ve enjoyed the mountainous version at Manhattan’s Carnegie Deli, fully six inches high, served between excellent rye bread with a wonderful crust—and their complimentary pickles at every table were fantastic.

When I arrived at The Hat today at lunchtime, the parking lot was packed with cars. Lots of customers were eating outside on picnic-style tables in the back, covered by an awning, and more standing in front. Even so, I was able to walk right up and place my order, within five minutes ready to be picked up. There was a generous amount of meat between a split French roll, the bottom half spread with yellow mustard and thin pickles (☆☆☆). This presentation is different from Johnnie’s where mustard and pickles are served on the side. The pastrami at both is comparable, tasting of spices and herbs, salty and peppery, garlicky, glistening with brisket fat, and above all, delicious.

Pastrami dip sandwich

Pastrami dip sandwich

Johnnie's pastrami dip sandwich

Johnnie’s pastrami dip sandwich (2009)

My preference is Johnnie’s (☆☆☆½), not only because of the tastier jus but the fact that mustard (which is spicy) and pickles are served separately and The Hat’s roll seems drier. Someone on Chowhound rued that in the 1980s, the bread was lamentably changed from a crusty outside and soft inside, to today’s style. Two of my wife’s sisters said flatly that they also preferred Johnnie’s. Still, the Hat’s version is no slouch. If you want a wetter sandwich, order it double-dipped. Each has its fierce defenders and many traditionalists decry both. A lot may boil down to whether you like your pastrami sandwich wet or dry. At present, the sandwich at The Hat is $7.99, Johnnie’s is $10.95 (cheese extra).

Update (1-3-15): Not wanting to pass final judgment on The Hat, I didn’t let the opportunity go by of ordering pastrami double-dipped today. As I suspected, this was much more to my liking, dry bread no longer a barrier to the sandwich’s full enjoyment. In fact, the bread was too wet, the result of the extra juices and steaming in the wrapper on the way back to the house. In spite of tackling a big, sloppy sandwich, this is fully the equal of Johnnie’s, a great Southern California-style pastrami sandwich (☆☆☆½).


Double-dipped pastrami sandwich

Update (10-15-18): The only thing that’s changed since the last time is the wrapper, now customized with repeating patterns of The Hat’s logo. Otherwise, it’s the same great, generous, messy pastrami sandwich, double-dipped, which is now $9.99.

The Hat
1 West Valley Blvd
Alhambra, CA 91801

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

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

Lunch at Nancy’s Airport Cafe (Willows, CA)

One of the best surprises of eating on the road is coming across little gems. It wasn’t that Nancy’s Airport Cafe happened to be the closest place at mealtime. It was mentioned in an article in the latest issue of a bimonthly AAA magazine published in Northern California, called Via, in which a food critic wrote about the best eats along US Interstate 5 between Sacramento and Portland. (As an aside, my wife happened to pick up a copy at the Stockton AAA when I picked up a tour book, a happy coincidence since we were on this very itinerary.)

Nancy’s is a classic diner, located in a small town (Willows) and situated at the edge of a little-used municipal airport. The wind was blowing stiffly outside, the skies gray as if rain were on the horizon. Once we stepped inside, the waitress greeted us warmly. It is a local favorite, evidenced by the many town folk who were eating here. The restaurant has been open for 40 years and our waitress has worked 22 of them.

Since it was lunchtime, we ordered one of the specials of the day and a customer favorite, Crispy Cheese Ham Sandwich (☆☆☆), which we shared, and a boysenberry pie a la mode, which we also shared. What was so special about the sandwich? Shredded cheddar cheese is sprinkled on a hot griddle, then fried until crispy, topped with thin smoked ham slices, and the works scooped on top of thick sandwich bread. The sandwich can be topped with lettuce, slices of tomato and onion, and pickles, and then folded over. A very tasty treat.

Crispy Cheese Ham Sandwich

Crispy Cheese Ham Sandwich

The pie slice (☆☆½) arrived with THREE scoops of vanilla ice cream. Other than a doughy crust, the pie was a very good one.

Boysenberry pie a la mode

Boysenberry pie a la mode

Pies, in fact, are a specialty here. Aside from ours and the lemon meringue pie recommended by the Via article, there were banana cream, coconut cream, strawberry cream, blackberry, blueberry, apple and peach. Our waitress recommended any of the burgers (made with Angus ground beef). Other customer favorites are the smoked beef tri-tip, fried chicken and broasted chicken.

Nancy's cream pies

Nancy’s cream pies

Nancy’s gets kudos for friendly service (which our waitress called ‘entertainment’), homey atmosphere, and solidly prepared comfort foods. This is what road food is all about.

Lunch at Pallino Pastaria (University Village)

Italian restaurants around here have gone upscale. It’s almost impossible to find a ristorante with reasonable prices, especially in the suburbs where it’s unlikely you’ll come across a neighborhood spot. In walkable U.S. cities with large Italian-American populations like along the East Coast and in Chicago, this is probably not the case, but out here in the West, it’s a no-show. A plate of spaghetti with meatballs for $15? I don’t usually bite.

That’s why it’s a welcome relief that restaurants like Pallino Pastaria have come in to fill the gap. I suspect that Olive Garden owes much of its success to the value the chain provides. Though Pallino is a Washington chain, their mission is to serve well-prepared Italian food at less than a king’s ransom in an informal, family-oriented setting. Does it work? Their expansion into other locations over the years shows that it has. Is it gourmet food? No, but it’s pretty good.

Take their meatball sub sandwich (Meatball pomodoro) (☆☆☆). Four two-inch meatballs are served in a freshly baked ciabatta roll, lightly dressed with a very good tomato sauce. My gold standard for such a sandwich was a little take-out in Westchester near LAX airport. Now closed, Pizza Napoli made the most delicious meatballs that were topped with mozzarella slices, slathered in a sauce that usually wound up on my shirt and sandwiched inside the lightest of baguette-style rolls. I think in the early days, I might’ve gone once a week for that sub. But, in fairness to other sandwiches to which it has since been compared, Pizza Napoli’s was a Southern Italian version that had great appeal to me for its zesty killer marinara. Pallino’s is a very good version without Napoli’s lava flow of sauce but livened up by marinated bell peppers that added zing. A good panade tenderized the well-seasoned beef and pork meatballs. A difficult sandwich to hold without the insides falling out, cutting the meatballs in half should stabilize the situation.

Meatball pomodoro

Meatball pomodoro

Closer to a tomato explosion was their soup (pappa di pomodoro) (☆☆☆½) chockfull of fresh tomato chunks and thickened with bread. This was a zesty soup, tart, slightly sweet and herbal, delicious and satisfying. My wife orders it almost every time we dine at Pallino. Despite the soup’s excellence, my preference is their Italian wedding soup (☆☆☆½) that is more brothy and savory, which I didn’t get today.

Pappa di pomodoro

Pappa di pomodoro

Finally, we shared a chopped salad (☆☆☆) that was dressed with a judicious amount of a mild Italian vinaigrette. I prefer not having big slices of chicken breast in a chopped salad, but this is a minor quibble.

Chopped salad

Chopped salad

We wound up at Pallino Pastaria as we were surveying the restaurants in University Village, almost every one of them aimed at a well-heeled crowd, including the all-Asian-noodles-to-all-people, Boom. For about half the price of other places, we enjoyed a satisfying meal.

Pallino Pastaria
2626 NE 46th St.
Seattle, WA 98105

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

Lunch at The Pepe (Tairua, NZ)

We stopped for lunch in Tairua, a popular resort town with surfing, fishing and diving recreational opportunities. The commercial district is small with a few shops, galleries, an i-Site center and places to eat. We walked past several restaurants before deciding on The Pepe, which serves basic cafe fare: burgers, sandwiches, fried fish, salads, and the like. The cashier recommended The Steak Stack, which he claimed was the restaurant’s most popular sandwich. When I finished it, I could understand why, an eye-fillet (as beef tenderloin is called in NZ) steak sandwiched in a sesame seed roll with sauteed mushrooms, lettuce, tomato slice and caramelized onions, dressed with a red bell pepper (capsicum) and sun-dried tomato sauce. An excellent sandwich.

Steak Stack sandwich

The Pepe
222 Main St
Tairua, NZ 3508
07 864 7774
Lunch menu