I have a complex, ecstatic, and craven relationship with pork, as I have with my nether regions. Bacon's crisp and salty smokiness is imbued with conflicted emotions; its layers of flavor unfold on the tongue, weaving a savory web I alternately thrash against and blissfully submit to.
Struggling to curb my lust for pork, I have found a quick and cheap fix. Each block of Little Saigon has its own Vietnamese deli. No matter where you are, a porkalicious sandwich lurks mere strides away. For the uninitiated, the Vietnamese sandwich marries the brilliance of Vietnamese cuisine's flavors with the perfection of the French baguette. An exhaustive selection of Vietnamese-spiced sandwich meats, ranging from sardines to pâté to shredded pork to chicken, are nestled into a crusty baguette. The sandwich sparks with jalapeño, cucumber, and cilantro wedded with a marinade of pickled vegetables such as carrots, daikon radish, and onion. Mayonnaise is used in a distinctive sauce, binding the flavors and textures together. Genius. A light yet satisfying snack, ranging in price from $1 to $1.50. That's right. A whole sandwich for a BUCK.
This particular afternoon I walked from deli to deli, stuffing sandwich on top of sandwich into my handbag. I have been researching the medium of Vietnamese sandwiches for quite some time, scoping out sandwich joints, culminating in the final "sandwich-off." The study focused on specific sandwich fillings. Ruling out dense meatballs and curious pâté, I went straight for the jugular of Vietnamese cuisine: Pork, for the sinful, and the mysterious "Vegetarian" for the upright.
Three delis stood out for their exquisite sandwiches, ambiance, and service. Buu Dien positions itself at the lower end of Little Saigon, being the first stop on Jackson as you trudge up from downtown. Pulsing Christmas lights circle meditative Buddhas' heads on the wall behind the counter. 1980s-era dance hits tinkle, contextualizing the stylish and handsome proprietor. His dry and smoky pork is barbecued, dominating the sandwich with its sweet and peppery flavor. Sandwiches do not appear instantly here, because the proprietor uses a convection oven, heating pork the old-fashioned way. The vegetarian selection relies on a generous spread of mayonnaise, also sweet and quite spicy, but not biting with vinegar.
A bit farther up Jackson, nestled under that day-trip of a grocery store, Viet Wah, Pho Banh Mi Saigon (Saigon Sandwich) pumps out a distinctive vegetable sandwich from its diminutive storefront. The secret lies in a sprinkling of fish sauce over mayonnaise and punchy amounts of vinegar flavoring the pickled vegetables, resulting in a crisp and clean-tasting sandwich. Saigon Sandwich offers other fat-marbled luncheon meats, but the vegetable sandwich is their signature piece. They recently opened a new sandwich emporium at 810 Rainier South, with a stunning selection of meat for your roll.
In the heart of 12th and Jackson throbs Saigon Deli. A mind-boggling array of banana-leaf-wrapped delights fan from the cramped deli counter. The refrigerator glows with beverages, whimsy in a can. Hello Boss chilled coffee drink pictures a fat man smoking a cigar. Like its emblematic cigar, Hello Boss is strong and delicious. Another top seller, Mango Bits, features mango juice with, yes, chunks of real mango fruit. Feeling bold? Try a drink popping with giant tapioca to wash down your sandwich. No one dilly-dallies at Saigon Deli. Their "buy five sandwiches and get one free" offer results in fast and furious business. Alarmingly cheap, this deli puts all other sandwiches to shame. That all-too-rare occurrence, a vegetarian stroke of genius, explodes inside their vegetarian sandwich, featuring sweet, deep-fried tofu over a base of fish sauce, with oil and vinegar in place of mayonnaise. The pinnacle of Vietnamese sandwiches, though, is Saigon Deli's marinated grilled pork. This sweet and smoky substance amazed sandwich-tasters, eliciting moans and ravished squeals. No better pork fix exists, and at $1.50, it's almost like it never happened, at least not to the wallet. Like anonymous sex, Saigon Deli's grilled pork sandwich overwhelms with a suddenness, a moment of rapture, resulting in an experience that transcends place and time, transporting the incident to the dream world, where it stays, all fluid and filmy, the poetry of inexpressible porkiness.
923 S Jackson, 233-9001. Open daily 8 am-6 pm. $.
Pho Banh Mi Saigon (Saigon Sandwich)
1034 S Jackson, 322-5622. Mon-Sat 9 am-7 pm; Sun 9 am-6pm. $.
Jackson Square #7, 1200 S Jackson, 322-3700. Open daily 7am-7pm. $.
Price Scale (per entrée)
$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up