In Seattle, it’s not unusual to have banh mi makers in close proximity to each other. But they don’t typically bake their own bread. So it’s striking that in Seattle’s Rainier Valley you find Q Bakery and Tony’s Bakery: two bread-baking banh mi–shops that sandwich the Island Pacific Supermarket (formerly Viet Wah) on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.
Bread is a critical component of banh mi. After all, in Vietnamese, banh is a flour-based food item (like a dumpling, cake, or bread) while mi is wheat; that makes banh mi wheat bread, simply stated. But it’s a bit more complex, as banh mi is better known as a sliced baguette (reflecting the French influence on Vietnam) that typically comes with a mayonnaise-based spread, pickled vegetables and cucumber strips, jalapeños, cilantro and a choice of proteins. The baguette should be crusty with a light, airy crumb. The baker often adds rice flour to the wheat flour to achieve this.
Q Bakery is all about the bread. You’ll smell it when you open the door and you’ll see racks with various lengths of baguettes immediately upon entry. Many customers flock to these racks when they walk in, bagging a bunch of baguettes to take home. The bread turns over so quickly that the baker is constantly rolling out new batches—when they’re not being dispatched to nearby restaurants.
Further into the bakery you’ll see photos of the banh mi options you can try on that freshly baked bread. Q’s got recognizable classics like grilled or barbecue pork and shredded chicken, but a few less-common ones as well. Banh mi ca moi comes with tinned sardines in tomato sauce, the vegetables countering the fishiness. Even better is banh mi chao tom, with a shrimp paste “cake” that’s squishy and slightly salty that’s especially good with a fried egg. Also recommended is the banh mi bi—bi being shredded pork skin, gelatinous with a very porky smell and flavor.
Q Bakery has tables that allow you to eat your banh mi onsite. It’s the best way to enjoy the fresh bread experience. If you open up your sandwich you’ll see that Q hollows out the bread, which is slightly chewy while quite crisp on the outside.
Across the parking lot, Tony’s Bakery is a kaleidoscopic affair with all kinds of colorful products, particularly the desserts. A glass showcase displays rice box entrees and some sandwich-able items, like marinated tofu for banh mi chay. As it’s not on the menu, only insiders (that now includes you!) know about banh mi ca xa ot, featuring basa fish (a type of catfish) that’s marinated in lemongrass and chili pepper, then battered and fried. The secret to that sandwich’s success might be its super-flavorful smear of garlic-chive aioli. To get a sense of the other fillings, try the “dac biet” (house special combo) with ham, pork roll and pate. It’s a Vietnamese cold cut sandwich!
The crust of Tony’s bread has a smoother surface than at Q Bakery, and a slightly more airy crumb. Q’s bread is just a bit more crackly in the classic form of a French baguette. I’m not sure I prefer one over the other, but can emphatically state that both are far better than bread that is not fresh-baked, making both places well worth a visit.
If you stay long enough at Tony’s, you’ll see its broader bakery focus. There are cream puffs baked twice daily, and if you get a glance around the back, you’ll see a cake decorator in action, working a spinning wheel to prepare festive layer cakes for any occasion. You might also see Truong Le, owner of Tony’s Bakery. He’ll gladly tout his fondness of Vietnamese food, proudly proclaiming that it’s far healthier, more nutritious and even cheaper than fast food. I’d add that it’s also more delicious.
Originally published on EthnicSeattle.com on 7/27.