Tampa's Saigon Deli serves excellent Banh Mi Mesandwiches

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click to enlarge SAMMIE FROM SAIGON: The deli is a mecca for some of the best banh mi in the Bay area. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
SAMMIE FROM SAIGON: The deli is a mecca for some of the best banh mi in the Bay area.

But Can a Southeast Asian sandwich beat the best of the West?

I have a friend who is, to say the least, an adventurous eater. He's my go-to guy for pickled meat and brown Scandinavian cheese tastings. But when it comes to actually sitting down for an extended meal from some of the more mundane ethnic cuisines, he balks. Especially when it comes to Southeast Asia. Why? He misses the bread.

Thankfully, there is one Pacific Rim culinary hotspot that can treat him right. One remnant of years of French colonial influence in Vietnam is a tradition of bread-making that is completely out of character to the bean- and rice-flour culinary cultures that surround the country (and, to be certain, dominate inside Vietnam, as well.) Baguettes are still a rare side in most spots — besides the occasional hunk of crusty bread with soup or stew — but there is one bready, largely-Western treat that the Vietnamese enjoy with relish: banh mi.

Banh mi are the same kinds of street food sandwiches that you see on every street corner in Paris, just a simple combination of meat and accompaniments that's perfect for a light meal on the go. In France, these portable snacks are astounding thanks to great bread and good cheese. In Vietnam, the accompaniments are what elevate the banh mi to world-class standard.

And Saigon Deli is a mecca for some of the best banh mi in the Bay area. Oh, this Asian food market also sells all of the necessary components for creating your own Vietnamese dishes — with stacked cases of fish sauce and a plethora of dried noodles, along with all the condiments you could ever need — but most of the shoppers make sure to stop off at the café tucked into the side of the retail space.

There, you'll find some of the quick and tasty standards of the Vietnamese dinner table, including some damn fine pho, capable stir-fries, bun salads, and a plethora of pre-packaged puddings and desserts.

No matter what they come in for, though, everyone leaves with at least one banh mi. At $2.99 each, they're hard to resist.

Saigon Deli's four varieties of Banh Mi are only differentiated by meat choice; the garnish is always the same: lightly pickled carrots, cucumber and daikon radish; a heaping mass of bright green cilantro; sliced, fresh jalapenos. A simple combination, but those ingredients contain three of the four fundamental facets of most Southeast Asian cuisine: spice from the jalapeno, sour from the pickle, sweet from the veggies. Add savory and salty meat, and you've hit the jackpot.

Each of the four meat choices offers a slightly different tweak on the formula. Meatballs are salty and luscious, with flavors both similar and very different from Western versions. The tender bundles of ground meat are studded with garlic and served with a burst of luscious fat thanks to a schmear of mayonnaise. The sandwich is never rich, though, thanks to the mediating iinfluence of the pickled garnish and bright herbs.

Saigon Deli's grilled meat is intensely marinated roast beef, the kind that's stained red from spices and cooked so long it resembles tender jerky. Slices of salty roast pork seasoned with Chinese five-spic powder get a splash of pungent fish sauce, making that the second-most authentic-tasting banh mi in the shop. First place is reserved for pate and head cheese.

Pate baguette sandwiches are my favorite when visiting Paris, thanks to the sharp contrast between crunchy crust and smooth filling, between the rich meat and the sharp bite of mustard. The Saigon Deli banh mi takes those contrasts to an extreme. The pate is chunky and smooth in turns, the head cheese meaty and gelatinous, the pickles and crust crunchy. There's rich liver, bright herbs, tart vinegar, spicy jalapenos, gelatin that melts in your mouth and meat that requires some chew, all chased by enough refreshing cilantro and vegetables to clear the palate for another bite. If you can get past the idea of head cheese, it's easily one of the best sandwiches to be had in the Bay area. $2.99 each.

Beware, though, that the market closes at 5 p.m., so your sandwich craving needs to be fixed during the workday. Here's a tip: It'll be difficult for your co-workers argue your extended lunch break if you stuff a few extra Saigon Deli banh mi into their mouths.

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