Seattle's best lunch costs less than $3. The Vietnamese sandwich, that paper-wrapped, puppy-sized cylinder also known as banh mi, is a cheerful union of meat or tofu, pickled and fresh veggies, mayonnaise (sometimes), and a spectrum of delicious sauces (orange to brown, depending on the deli), all swaddled in a buttery, toasty French baguette. Pillowy bread snuggles with vinegary carrots; sweet meat and tart cilantro hold hands under the table; fresh cucumber gets fresh with fried tofu. It's enough to make you blow a tiny kiss to colonialism.
Banh mi, as a rule, run the negligible gamut of $1.50 to $2.75. With $20 in your pocket, you could eat for a week. But you don't have to be strapped for cash to swoon over a banh mi. This isn't a sandwich to settle for, or eat out of desperation—a good banh mi is looked forward to, and, after the first bite, demands answers: "Why don't you eat me every day? What is wrong with you, dude?" It's an emotionally abusive kind of lunch.
Though a handful of more elegant eateries (the kind with "décor" and "bathrooms") have lately been hopping on the Vietnamese-sandwich train—the commendable Baguette Box comes to mind—a banh mi over $3 simply can't be justified, not with our own Little Saigon just down the street. But with so many choices—Seattle Deli, Saigon Deli, New Saigon Deli, Tan Dinh Deli, and Banh Mi 88 Deli all within a block of each other, all in homogeneous storefronts—what's a hungry gal to do? Who is the true banh mi king?
As it turns out, a Vietnamese sandwich taste test is a near-perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon. After collecting two specimens—one tofu and one barbecued pork—from each of the aforementioned delis, I assembled my esteemed panel of judges: three teachers, one unemployed omnivore, one web marketer, one astute vegetarian, one overworked NGO program director, and one guy-who-works-with-the-youth. Kneeling on blankets under the sun at Cal Anderson Park, we were hungry. Our palates were eager. We got down to business, mingling germs in the name of science.
225 12th Ave S, 328-0106Price: Pork $2.25, Tofu $1.75
Time elapsed between placing and reception of order: 5 minutes
Seattle Deli is bright and clean and, unlike its strip-mall competitors, inhabits a sort of freestanding, shiny cube. "It's kind of like that Taco Time of the Future in Wallingford," observed the vegetarian. Seattle Deli offers an impressive collection of extras: bubble tea, pastries, coconut-milk-based treats, and stratified jellies in cups. As for the banh mi: The Seattle Deli pork was declared "delicious, but a little dry" by one of the teachers and was the only sandwich we finished entirely. The meat was dark and sweet, with hefty wedges of cucumber and clinging jalapeño heat. The tofu sandwich didn't fare as well, eliciting "boo," "a little like fish sauce," and "all I taste is mush and vinegar" from the overworked NGO program director.
Tan Dinh Deli
1212 S Main St, 726-9990Price: Pork $1.75, Tofu $1.50
Time elapsed between placing and reception of order: 10 minutes
A box of shiny Capri Sun pouches called to us from the refrigerator case at Tan Dinh, while a friendly twentysomething dude retrieved our sandwiches. Their pork version, rumored to be "the best!" could have used a few more veggies, but the bread was soft and crunchy and the mayo lent a harmonious tang. Despite the best efforts of a decoratively scraped cucumber, Tan Dinh's tofu lacked sauce and flavor, and our vegetarian was leery of the amount of mayo. "Boring," she said.
1200 S Jackson St, 328-2357Price: Pork $2, Tofu $1.50
Time elapsed between placing and reception of order: 3 minutes
The brusque but cordial ladies of Saigon Deli dispense banh mi with brutal efficiency. Customers can use the very brief wait to peruse crates of gummi pizza, confusing cans of Doritos, and the largest selection of refrigerated mysteries this side of actual Saigon. The sandwiches were uniformly delicious. The hot-pink pork raised suspicions ("I like it," said guy-who-works-with-the-youth. "But I didn't think I would 'cause it looked nasty."), but admirably balanced the overabundant mayo and hefty portion of pickle. Saigon Deli's tofu added a welcome jolt of black pepper, and positively dripped with a sticky red sauce. "Still the king!" announced guy-who-works-with-the-youth, punching the air in triumph.
New Saigon Deli
1034 S Jackson St, 322-5622Price: Pork $2, Tofu $1.75
Time elapsed between placing and reception of order: 7 minutes
This establishment was new to us. Jellies, coconuts, and a lonely fried fish rotated in a motorized display case. We picked up a bag of PAGODA young nuts (their slogan: "Younger nuts are better nuts!"), and opted against sampling the "vegetarian ham." One of the teachers described the pork, aptly, as "grilled to perfection," but, without mayonnaise, it was a bit dry. The forlorn tofu sandwich lacked both cucumber and flavor.
Banh Mi 88 Deli
1043 S Jackson St, 324-9019Price: Pork $2, Tofu $1.75
Time elapsed between placing and reception of order: 8 minutes
Banh Mi 88 was the only deli we visited that had no line. A vaguely icky odor wafted out onto the sidewalk, while inside an old lady worked a giant meat-slicing apparatus. She grinned in our direction. Very dark, sweet, and gristly, the pork was as unappetizing as we expected, and went largely uneaten. The tofu, however, was another story, stuffed to the brim with veggies, chunks of fried tofu, and a viscous white fluid that looked like the hideous progeny of mayonnaise and pineapple juice but tasted like the wonderful progeny of mayonnaise and pineapple juice, and which rendered Banh Mi 88's tofu sandwich a flavorful standout amid its uniformly boring, if more traditional, competitors. Moral: Don't judge a sandwich by its milky white goo.
After a final vote and a last-minute mutiny from the unemployed omnivore ("Whatever," he scoffed. "It won't change where I get my banh mi."), we tallied our results. In the pork category, perennial favorites Seattle Deli and Tan Dinh tied with newcomer New Saigon; among the tofu, Saigon Deli shared the prize with ugly duckling Banh Mi 88. The ultimate winners—you and me, the cheap and hungry.