I often lament the fact that Seattle lacks a truly great New York delicatessen, a place where you can get pastrami sandwiches and knishes. But every time my friend Ben visits from Brooklyn, I'm reminded how the grass in Seattle really is greener.
My friend is obsessed with the city's Vietnamese delis. On each trip, he works his way through not only various banh mi fillings, but also the many (often unlabeled) offerings that line the stainless-steel tables of delis across town: Styrofoam trays holding grilled meatballs; translucent, dumpling-like objects; and blocks of striped, brilliant-colored jellies—all wrapped tightly in cellophane, gleaming mysteriously under the fluorescent lights.
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Recently, while we shared bites of banh bo nuong—a dense and chewy neon-green cake flavored with coconut milk and grassy pandan leaf—from Saigon Deli, I felt a little ashamed. Although I've had plenty of banh mi at our many excellent (and similarly named) Vietnamese delis around town, I've rarely explored other items. In fact, I've passed by the package of banh bo nuong countless times and wondered what the hell it was (its color alone demands that it be noticed), but never actually picked it up. So, resolving to be more adventurous, I hit up two of my favorite quick-service joints—Saigon Deli and Tammy's Deli & Bakery—and grabbed armfuls of unknown items to sample.
The following are some of the best items I tried. (While there were no prices listed on any of these things, on average they will run you about $3.50.)
Bo La Lot (ground beef wrapped in la lot leaves)
Both Saigon and Tammy's sell bo la lot, ground beef shaped into tiny sausages, wrapped in la lot leaves, and grilled. They look a little like dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) and are accompanied by ground peanuts and a thick, pungent fermented fish sauce sweetened with pineapple.
The beef is seasoned with black pepper and shallot, and the la lot (also known as wild betel, not be confused with the betel leaves and nuts that people throughout Southeast Asia chew as a stimulant) gives the dish an herbaceous flavor. The beef at Saigon is more complex—flavored with lemongrass and topped with crispy shallots and fresh cilantro and basil—but quite dry. The bo la lot at Tammy's is simpler, but the meat is wonderfully moist and quite flavorful on its own.
Banh Cuon (rice crepes)
Banh cuon look like miniature white swaddle blankets. They're tender, delicate crepes made from a batter of ground rice that are first steamed, and then rolled with a filling of peppery ground pork and earthy wood ear mushrooms—utterly delicious.
Banh cuon come with a side of nuoc cham, fish sauce flavored with lime juice, sugar, and chilies, and slices of cha lua, a mild Vietnamese ham that looks, unfortunately, like gray lunch meat. (If you happen to like this stuff, you can buy whole logs of it, wrapped in foil, at Tammy's.)
While banh cuon from a deli are quite good, fresh banh cuon are even better: I recommend trying them at Capitol Hill's Ba Bar, where they are meticulously prepared by an older Vietnamese man and served as a special on Friday and Saturday nights.
Banh Beo (rice cakes)
It's easy to overlook banh beo—deceptively plain-looking steamed rice cakes. The white disks remind me of little saucers, shaped with a perfect shallow divot in the center to hold crumbly dried shrimp powder, dollops of yellow mung-bean paste, and finely sliced scallion. The flavor is relatively subdued, but the texture—impossibly soft, almost juicy—really stands out.
At Saigon Deli, you can find trays of banh beo and also packages with their equally enjoyable cousins: squat, fat dumplings made with the same rice flour dough that bulge with even more of that creamy mung-bean paste.
Banh Pa Te So (ground pork pastry)
Both delis have a small heated case for items like pork-filled egg rolls. But Tammy's also has banh pa te so, a small, square puff pastry with ground pork that's seasoned with lots of black pepper. As you bite into it, flakes of pastry crust will scatter everywhere, oil will get all over your fingers and chin, and it will all be very exciting and worth the mess.
Perhaps the most enigmatic items at Vietnamese delis are those wrapped in banana leaves. At Saigon Deli, I randomly picked up a nondescript package and was rewarded for taking a chance. About the size and shape of a candy bar, it turned out to be filled with a sweet-and-savory combination of sticky rice and coconut milk, dotted with pieces of salty pork and red bean.
A string of eight triangular parcels, all tied together with red packing twine, looked like some sort of forgotten Christmas decoration, but each held a surprising treat: clear tapioca triangles, stained green and imbued with a slight grassy flavor from the banana leaf, filled with a thick red-bean paste. Their squishy, chewy texture made them feel like a dessert, but they weren't sweet at all.
I also got lucky at Tammy's, where I was drawn to a fried piece of dough that reminded me of a Mexican huarache, flat and vaguely rectangular. It was tucked amid the foil-wrapped hams, so I expected something along those lines.
I was too excited to wait to try it until I got home, so I took a bite as I was walking out the door. My eyes grew wide with delight—it was incredibly sweet and transported me, simultaneously, to a market in Southeast Asia and an American roadside carnival. While the deep-fried dough was thin, it was, miraculously, stuffed with banana and sugar, but also something a little funky and custardy—jackfruit?
I started to turn around so I could ask one of the women working at Tammy's, but I stopped myself. Instead, I took another bite, realizing it's the mystery that will keep me coming back for more.