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Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants.

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May 21, 2008 3:55 PM

Why I love Seattle's "Little Saigon"

Posted by Nancy Leson

Twenty years ago, I got turned on to Vietnamese food after moving to Seattle. I learned about it by trial and error. To be honest, there were very few errors -- if you don't count the time I watched a little boy pull down his drawers in the aisle of a small grocery store off 12th and Jackson and relieve himself while his mother was busy inspecting the produce. Today I had lunch in a strip mall just across the street from that grocery: the Chinese restaurant Sichuanese Cuisine. I shared four generous platters of food: 20 steamed dumplings, eggplant with garlic sauce, family-style tofu with pork and kung pao fish, plus a big bowl of rice and complimentary tea -- enough for four hungry people. The cost of this fine lunch? $32:

Sichuanese Cuisine had a donation box on the counter for relief funds for earthquake victims in Szechuan province. I'd already opened my check book after seeing an ad in Sunday's Seattle Times, urging folks to send donations to China via Mercy Corps. You might consider doing the same, as every little bit helps and, for me at least, it softens the emotional blow of blythely stuffing myself on Szechuan food here in the earthquake-prone Pacific Northwest, a place I feel exceedingly fortunate to live and eat in.

After lunch, I took a friend on her first tour of Viet Wah, the Vietnamese supermarket where I used to regularly shop for inexpensive meats and produce, Asian sauces and other ingredients back when I lived in Seattle. Now I'm more likely to go to Ranch 99 near my home in Edmonds, though as I always say, I'm an "equal opportunity shopper." (All things being equal, I'll stop for food just about anywhere.) For $11 I brought home a bag of Vietnamese sandwich rolls, a large squeeze-bottle of Sriracha chili sauce, two bananas, a pound of fresh red peppers for pickling, a package of Vietnamese rice pancakes for making summer rolls, and two gorgeous bunches of fresh pea vines for sauteing (for which I paid $2.78 vs. the $5.99 they'd likely cost in a traditional supermarket -- if I could find them):

I can never believe people who tell me they don't come to Seattle's Vietnamese neighborhood to shop and eat. Sure, you'll find things you may have never seen before -- like the bag of periwinkles and the giant jackfruit we were ogling at Viet Wah, or the "Beef Miscellany" on Sichuanese's menu (no, we didn't try it: next time!).

And these days, when some of us are eating $40 Mangalitsa pork chops and other expensive delicacies, and dining on multi-course dinners and fine wines at fancy restaurants while others are wondering if they've got $25 to spend on the week's groceries, it's good to know about all the delicious options out there.

Like this place, Tan Dinh, at 1212 S. Main. It's one of many small Vietnamese delis in and around 12th and Jackson. The food here is really good, plus, the folks behind the counter speak English, which is a plus, though I've found that pointing always works in the Little Saigon neighborhood when language becomes a barrier:

I stopped into Tan Dinh a week or so ago and spent $11 for (clockwise, from left) two summer rolls with peanut dipping sauce, a 16-ounce container of shrimp with pork belly (I'd already eaten some when I took the photo, it was that good), two big, fried savory shrimp cupcakes (well, that's what I call them), two banh mi sandwiches, plus a single roll to make my kid a ham sandwich for his school lunchbox:

So? What are you waiting for -- an engraved invitation?

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