Worth writing about

A dilly of a deli in Little Saigon.

IT ALL STARTED, innocently enough, with a letter. We at the Weekly frequently receive very opinionated feedback on various eateries from very opinionated readers, but this writer stood out—not only for the beautiful cursive flourishes, but for the diligence with which they pointed out every aspect of their experience at a tucked-away spot called Saigon Deli. The first letter, three pages long, described the "bang for the $" and the delicious food at an authentic Vietnamese-spoken-here establishment in Seattle's Little Saigon. SAIGON DELI

1200 S Jackson, 322-3700 daily 8am-8pm MC, V, D Then came the second letter (again three pages long, much bigger paper), reiterating with more of the same ("I'd like to add a few more points to my recommendation. . . .") and simultaneously auditioning to be Saigon Deli's PR person ("If anything's cheaper, they're giving food away!"). With a few stray bills in my pocket, I went to investigate. Saigon Deli calls Jackson Square, the mini-mall at the corner of 12th and South Jackson, home. It's surrounded by other businesses that are mostly Vietnamese-owned, and it looks from the outside like it could be anything from a dry cleaner to a travel agency. Inside, you'll find yourself among a pack of ravenous patrons, all fighting for a view through the glass of a cafeteria-style assortment of hot dishes in large metal bins. You can practically hear everyone's hunger pangs jockeying for position. First discovery: There isn't a lot of food you'll recognize. Second discovery: There are no seats. Third and fourth: There are no menus, and no one is speaking English. A big blue board lists five or so types of banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches)—including ham, shredded chicken, shredded pork, barbecue pork, and tofu—and their prices ($1.25!). Vietnamese sandwiches stand as one of the most tangible combinations of two vastly different cultures: French colonists introduced the baguette to Indochina, and many of the French culinary techniques were transposed into traditional Vietnamese ingredients and preparations. It's a winning fusion of East and West, with more of an emphasis on freshness and subtlety than overwhelming spice. Saigon Deli's chewy mini-baguettes are filled with carrot strips, green peppers with a kick, pickled turnip, butter, mayonnaise, nuac nam (the orange fish sauce used in almost every dish), cilantro, meat or tofu, and black pepper (the chicken and shredded pork were the best of the lot). Even if your sandwich taste, like mine, tends toward the Reuben and Monte Cristo end of the spectrum, the crisp textures and flavors of all the ingredients come as a delicious shock. And you have to feel a smidge guilty about how little you spent. OPENED FOUR YEARS AGO by owner Quoc Dang, the Deli acts as part takeout/deli counter and part corner grocery store. Dang's brisk business isn't about being upscale. It's fast, clean, and smells wonderful. The store also sells canned soft drinks and exotic fruit nectars, shrink-wrapped baked goods (yummy cream puffs, three for $1; cookies; candied gummy beans rolled in coconut), servings of bun (rice vermicelli and skewered meat with fish sauce and other condiments, $1.50), and spring rolls with shrimp ($1.50). Whole fried fish, piled like kindling, lie stacked on a metal tray next to other fascinating edibles that couldn't be identified (rice wrapped in banana leaves? part of animal's leg stuffed with something? rice and bean dessert pudding?). Since the sandwiches were that good, surely all those other customers must have reason to line up for the hot stuff—$3 Styrofoam containers housing a mountain of steamed white rice and three choices of steaming surprises. Wielding plastic utensils and chopsticks, we ravaged nine portions: savory chicken pieces in a peppery soy-based sauce; shredded chicken with onion, green pepper, bamboo shoots, and mushrooms in a mild yellow curry; tofu with pork sausage, green pepper, and tomato in a tangy, tomato-based sauce; bacony ham pieces with mushroom in a peppery stir-fry; squid and thick pieces of bamboo in a mild, buttery sauce; honey-soy baked chicken leg; green beans with tofu pieces and mushroom in a light sauce; stewed pork rinds with deep-fried whole hardboiled eggs in a light soy broth (I ate the egg after some hesitation; I'm still here and doing fine). The bottom line? I think I'll let the letter writer have the last word, since, after all, they said it first and best: "Uh-oh, I've opened the floodgates. Now I'll never be able to wade through the crowds!" ebrussin@seattleweekly.com

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