Pork for Pennies

A primer on the premier Vietnamese sandwich shop in Little Saigon.

LITTLE SAIGON, the quad of city blocks around 12th Avenue and South Jackson Street, is like a lot of neighborhoods in Boston, Philly, and New York in that you can't spit without hitting a deli—only here the delis are a little different. I've long lamented that Seattle doesn't have enough good delis, but of Vietnamese sandwich shops, however, it has plenty and among those in my crowd—which features some thrifty enough to hunt out the best deals and those dogged enough to pursue pure pleasure—Saigon Deli is the favorite. You aren't going to find any submarine sandwiches at Saigon Deli. There are no Reubens, no French dips. There are, however, a few pork varieties (shredded or barbecued), a curiously ball-less "meatball" variety, a wonderful vegetarian option, and half a handful more utilizing chicken and shrimp. The first thing you should know is that pork is the most popular, and the second is that regardless of which sandwich you choose, you will only spend between $1.25 and $1.75 on it. This is true of almost all the sandwich shops in Little Saigon, which is why you often run into those gutter-punk kids from Broadway. Now, you might be wondering what kind of sandwich you're getting for less than a two-spot and you're right to wonder. The sandwiches aren't tiny, though—in fact, they're rather large. Or, I should say, the bread is large. Most delis around here use the same French roll—a huge, crusty affair that isn't easy to get inside your mouth. It isn't until you open the roll that you understand the low prices; like I said, there are no submarines in Little Saigon. The meat isn't stacked high; in most bites there is just a thin sliver of pork or a chunk of marinated tofu and a mess of vegetables. Not lettuce, tomato, and pickle, though. These sandwiches come generously and exotically treated with skinny cords of julienned carrot and daikon radish, slices of cucumber, lots of long stems of cilantro, and a few dangerous slices of jalapeno. If the sandwich looks too spartan for you, here's a trick: Buy two and slap the insides together in one of the buns. You still haven't spent five bucks. On to the sides. The ancillary pleasure of Saigon Deli is the surreal array of colors and textures that lie spread out on various tables and behind various cases. Nothing is labeled, so be prepared to hold things up or point and ask. For the most part, the staff at Saigon Deli speaks excellent English—certainly, it's far better than my Vietnamese—but their accents are often quite strong and inquiring about ingredients and ordering can be a trick (except for with the sandwiches, which are listed by number). A thick, chartreuse, porous slice of breadlike matter looked neat, so I blew $1.25 on it. It turned out to be some sort of sweet cake; coconut figured prominently, and it was great. Behind the glass is a strange mixture of sticky rice and black-eyed peas that you'd probably skip over—but don't. They pour coconut milk over the warm, pudding-like concoction so that it's a legitimate legume-based side dish and a dessert, and it's a buck per serving. There will be a vat of unrecognizable chunks of beige-colored stuff swimming in a thin milky sauce, too. This is taro root and yams in coconut milk—also a buck, also delicious. Spit, you're likely to hit something decent, and I bet you won't be able to spend 10 bucks. lcassidy@seattleweekly.com

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