There's one thing to be said for old-fashioned imperialism: It can leave a great cuisine in its wake. The French occupied Vietnam for nearly a hundred years; when the Vietnamese sent the French packing in 1954, they wisely held onto the recipes for baguettes, mayonnaise and pâté, and have continued to enjoy one of the world's great cross-cultural foods: banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwich.
A banh mi (which is simply Vietnamese for "bread") consists of a short baguette slit lengthwise and stuffed with some type of meat (or occasionally fish or tofu), pickled vegetables, hot peppers, mayonnaise and cilantro. With half a dozen banh mi on the menu, Seattle Deli may not have the biggest variety in town, but their sandwiches are among the best.
Seattle Deli recently moved from a cramped strip-mall storefront off Jackson to a sparkling new (but not much bigger) space in the 12th & Main Building. I was hoping they would add seating, but it remains a takeout shop only.
One of the joys of a Vietnamese deli is the morning rush. Seattle Deli opens at 7 a.m. to serve people on their way to work. There's congee (rice porridge) on the steam table, but the full range of sandwiches and entrees is available all day. Many people stop in to grab lunch, but if you're a savory-breakfast fan like me, you won't be able to resist downing a banh mi at the bus stop.
Steam-table entrees rotate. Spicy stewed eggplant appears frequently, but the pork-stuffed bitter melon I'd been eyeing while ordering banh mi was gone on my next visit. The cashier counter holds a selection of com, small rice meals cling-wrapped on foam trays. These include roast pork over rice and summer rolls with Chinese sausage or shrimp; a two-item combo is $3. There are also plenty of brightly colored, gelatinous Asian desserts.
The staff is harried but patient, even when confronted with my terrible pronunciation of Vietnamese menu items. Little English is spoken at Seattle Deli, but the magic words "barbecue pork sandwich" go a long way.
Note: There are at least six other banh mi joints within three blocks of Seattle Deli. I highly recommend the barbecue pork at Banh Mi 88 (1043 S. Jackson) and the roast chicken at Buu Dien (923 S. Jackson). The latter also has a sardine sandwich that wowed some sardine-lovers I know.
Banh mi thit nuong (2): Thin slices of pork in a fish-sauce-based marinade are roasted until crisp around the edges and stuffed into a baguette with house-made mayonnaise, lightly pickled carrot, daikon, cucumber, jalapeño slices and cilantro (everything except the roast pork also appears on the other banh mi). The bread is about halfway between soft supermarket "French bread" and a Grand Central rustic baguette. A crunchy and delicious sandwich.
Banh mi xiu mai: Confusingly enough, "xiu mai" refers to steamed dumplings in Chinese but to pork meatballs in Vietnamese. This is nothing like an Italian meatball sandwich, however: The meat is soft and spreadable like pâté. Not quite the flavor rush of the thit nuong, but a good pork sandwich nonetheless.
Banh mi bi: Ready for a challenge? "Bi" is shredded dried pork; it has an unsubtle fermented flavor (and an equally unsubtle aroma) and a stringy texture. Not surprisingly, this sandwich doesn't appear on the English side of the menu board, but for $1.25, give it a shot.
Egg roll (2): Once in awhile I get a craving for an old-fashioned pork-and-cabbage egg roll, crispy but not greasy. Seattle Deli's are excellent, fried to a deep golden brown and a bargain at 50 cents.
Coconut bubble tea: Coconut cream, tea and ice are buzzed in a blender to Frappuccino consistency and served over black tapioca balls. Very refreshing, as goofy drinks go.
Itemized bill, meal for two:
Banh mi thit nuong (2): $3.50
Banh mi bi: $1.25
Banh mi xiu mai: $1.25
Egg rolls (2): $1.00
Coconut bubble tea: $2.00
Total: $9.00 (tax included)
Matthew Amster-Burton: firstname.lastname@example.org.