Having your go-to phở restaurant is the Seattle equivalent to a New Yorker's proprietary feeling toward a favorite slice. Bánh mì are such a central part of the Seattle sandwich scene that, like a burger in L.A., the debate isn't whether or not to eat bánh mì, but if one wants the fast-food equivalent, the diner standard, or the fancy pub version. Beyond the basics, Seattle's Vietnamese restaurants serve such a wide variety of dishes that even Vietnamese cuisine maven Andrea Nguyen (author of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, Asian Dumplings, and The Bánh mì Handbook) marveled to us about the availability of "old school dishes that are the essence of Vietnam" in Seattle. If you eat your way through Seattle without entering a Vietnamese restaurant, you need to head back and try again.
Vietnamese cuisine is so ubiquitous, so varied, and so delicious in Seattle in part because the Vietnamese community here is so large. Seattle is one of only four major US cities (with more than a half-million people) where Vietnamese people make up greater than two percent of the population. And in Seattle more than anywhere else, the Vietnamese community is woven into the greater city—there are phở restaurants, for example, to be found in every neighborhood. Nguyen attributes this in part to Seattle 'facing Asia' and its role as a major transportation hub and port. If you leave Vietnam, she points out, the next land you'll hit is the West Coast—and Seattle's early Vietnamese community encouraged more and more immigrants to settle there.
Vietnamese food in Seattle, as Eric Banh, chef and co-owner of Monsoon and Ba Bar, is quick to point out, it is not quite the same food you'll find in Vietnam. Nobody in Seattle is picking the herbs for your phở hours before they make it or bringing the chicken fresh from the farm that day to make stock. That said, if you want to taste the flavors, techniques, and iconic dishes of Vietnamese cuisine, Seattle has some of the best you'll find without crossing the Pacific.
In Vietnam, each restaurant or street food stand specializes in a specific dish. In Seattle, that tends to be less typical, as menus grow to epic proportions. But restaurants still specialize, and the key to finding the best Vietnamese dishes in Seattle usually depends on ordering the right thing at the right place. Consider this your guide.
Luxurious Phở at Ba Bar
People tend to open phở restaurants because there are just a few fresh ingredients to maintain, and staff doesn't require a ton of training, Banh tells us. That is not the case at Ba Bar, where phở is just one item on a menu including a wide variety of Vietnamese classics, carefully crafted cocktails, and freshly-baked pastries. The ten-dollars-a-bowl phở here caused outrage when the restaurant opened, even inspiring Banh to write a screed justifying the price (the soup's base is made with high-quality, sustainably-raised beef from Painted Hills, just over the Oregon border, and that beef doesn't come cheap.)
The proof is in the flavor: the clear broth offers clean, robust meaty flavors. The long boiling of the best marrow and knucklebones makes for a rich broth that will stick your lips together when you smack them after sipping. The brisket falls apart in your chopsticks. "We would go bankrupt if we sold just the phở," Banh tells me of the 120 bowls of phở they make a day. The entire Ba Bar experience makes it a worthwhile value—you're sipping a Moscow Mule from a copper cup in a restaurant whose dark-wood tables and minimalist décor evoke a luxurious fantasy of Vietnam.
Hole in the Wall Phở at Phở Bac
For all the praise we've now heaped on the high-quality phở at Ba Bar, there is also a time and a place for the quick, easy, phở that'll cure your cold and your rainy-day doldrums. Phở Bac, as the plastic menu board declares, is "the best phở in town... Maybe, don't know, really, who cares, just eat it." The cloudless broth is spiced only mildly, so just the beefiness of the broth climbs the steam clouds, perfuming the air. Onions sliced paper-thin melt into the heat of the soup, giving it an allium-infused depth. The only option the menu board offers besides size (large or small) is which cut of beef you want. The smart money is on the "tai" (round steak) placed into the hot soup just moments before serving, the gentle cooking of the meat in the broth happening before your eyes.
When Hanna Raskin, the former Seattle Weekly restaurant critic, set out to do a "phở census," there were over two hundred phở restaurants on her list to try. There are many mediocre phở spots in Seattle, but there are also a number of good ones. Phở Bac is one of those good ones, and while declaring a "best" in this case is tough to do, it's hard not to favor a restaurant shaped like a boat.
Bún Bò Huế at Hoang Lan
The same dish is on every table at Hoang Lan: subtle, gentle phở's bigger, more aggressive cousin, bún bò Huế. It is an angry red soup, brimming with assorted animal parts (pork hock, cubes of blood cake, beef tendon), each loaning their specific texture and potent flavor to the dish. Lurking in the bottom are round rice noodles thicker than those found in phở, allowing the bold broth to cling to the noodles more easily. With the mix of porky, beefy, and spicy flavors, it's easy to see (and smell) why Eric Banh named this as his favorite Vietnamese dish in Seattle (outside of his own restaurants). Banh also spilled the secret of the mysteriously complex broth: fresh pineapple is layered into the bottom of the broth pot. The fruit adds sweetness, but the real key is that an enzyme in it helps to break down the beef shanks and ham hocks to flavor the broth. It's hard to pick up the pineapple flavor in the broth itself, though, as the aromatic assault from the bowl leads with the brightness of lemongrass and follows up with an exhilarating jab of spicy chili, the pineapple a silent partner in the flavor project, doing some heavy lifting behind the scenes.
Bánh cuốn at Banh Cuon Tan Dinh Deli
Bánh cuốn are flat, wide rice noodles, like a thin crepe, folded over many times to create a delicate but complex texture. The flat rolls (the name means rolled cakes) are thinner and more layered than the similar Chinese cheong fun served at dim sum, the croissant to cheong fun's scone. Instead of holding shrimp or beef within, they are sprinkled with savory wood ear mushrooms and fried shallots and served with sweet, sticky nước chấm dipping sauce.
The necessary thinness of the noodle to make the many layers of the rice batter work as a dish requires skill and patience, making this labor-intensive dish uncommon. At Bánh Cuốn Tan Dinh, a sliver of a place, the offerings include the usual bánh mì and Vietnamese deli fare, but it's the artfully-rolled, supple-skinned Bánh cuốn that make it worth a stop in Little Saigon. One or two pieces make a good snack, but to make a meal of it, get the meaty version, piled with Vietnamese ham on top.
Bánh Hỏi Thịt Nướng at Huong Binh
Huong Binh is far less of a one-dish wonder than many spots, but the bánh hỏi—tiny bundles of intricately wound thin rice noodles—are the star of the show. The noodles, somewhat similar to angel hair pasta, are squeezed through holes of a metal tool onto a mat, and then steamed until bouncy and delicately soft. There are a variety of meat and seafood options to pair with the noodles, but Huong Binh does wonders with the pork skewers called "thịt nướng," somehow recreating in the small restaurant kitchen the intense caramelization usually produced on grills on the street in Vietnam. Thin slices and quick cooking keeps the pork from drying out. The bánh hỏi comes with lettuce for wrapping the meat, noodles, and accompanying cilantro and mint up into a bundle and dipping in the nước chấm, the ubiquitous sweet, fish-sauced based Vietnamese sauce.
Bánh Xèo at Green Leaf
On first glance, bánh xèo looks like an omelet. It shares the half-moon shape, vibrant yellow color, and stuffed nature of the egg dish. But no eggs were harmed in the making of this rice flour and turmeric pancake. The yellow tint comes from turmeric, and the stuffing forgoes the herbs and cheese of French cuisine in favor of sliced pork, shrimp, and heaps of bean sprouts. Perfumed with coconut milk, the version at Green Leaf is soft and flaky, making it easy to snap off a section and roll with lettuce and herbs before dipping into nước chấm. Use the lettuce to wrap it tight, though, as the mountain of bean sprouts dotted with savory pork slivers and chunks of shrimp are tough to contain. The freshness of the sprouts and accompanying herbs are a point of pride for Green Leaf, where constant crowds keep the food from the kitchen pristinely fresh. With the opening of a second restaurant in Belltown, the lines have lessened, but the food remains vibrantly crisp and green.
Baby Clams at Tamarind Tree
Tamarind Tree introduces a level of elegance that Green Leaf forgoes, with excellent service, a full menu of wines, sakes, and cocktails, and a pleasant and elegant (if somewhat odd) décor that includes indoor fire pits and a faux waterfall on the patio. The enormous menu includes stretches from one corner of Vietnam to the other, including home-style dishes you don't see often in restaurants, their famous tamarind quail, and endless combinations of bun (rice noodle bowls).
A surprising favorite is the baby clams rice cracker appetizer (hến xúc bánh đa). Tiny baby clams, barely bigger than a nail head, are marinated with onions, garlic, chilies, herbs, and peanuts, quickly cooked, and served sans shell with a giant crispy rice cracker. Speckled black with sesame seeds, the cracker breaks into chip-like pieces, and suddenly the clams are like the next guacamole: the dip of champions. The tangy and slightly-fishy pineapple and anchovy sauce it comes with brings a touch of sweet to the bold flavors of the miniature bivalves.
Chicken Wings at Hue Ky Mi Gia
If you thought the best chicken wings in the city might come from a sports bar or fast-food restaurant, you'd be sorely mistaken: they're only available at this Chinese-Vietnamese noodle shop in Little Saigon. Originally opened in Vietnam in 1959, the family-owned shop is mainly known for the duck noodle soup that finds a home on nearly every table. But lurking deep in the appetizer menu is something called "fried butter garlic chicken wings." It is one of those situations where all these words are good things, but it's hard to picture the result. These wings have a shatteringly-crisp, golden-brown crust, sprinkled with vibrant green dots of scallions and peppers and browner bits of the garlic that joined the wings in the fryer. The meat within, protected from the heat of the fryer by the shell of breading, stays juicy and tender. The garlic and pepper flavor doesn't migrate into the protected meat, but there's plenty of extra fried bits floating around that can be mopped up—a good alternative to the too-sweet sauce that's offered on the side.
All the Animals at Rainier Restaurant
Alligator, deer, eel, rabbit, or frog? The house specials menu at Rainier Restaurant reads a bit like the zoo was raided on the way to the kitchen. The regular menu will get you a very good ong choy and beef salad, one of the best bowls of bún riêu (crab soup) in town, and an order of salt and pepper prawns featuring the live prawns in the tank at the front of the restaurant. But make sure you ask for the separate specials menu. You'll have the choice of having your cobra chopped and served with sesame rice paper or sliced and stir-fried.The food is not on the menu solely for shock value (though that could be how they lured Anthony Bourdain to visit), but because it is good. Turns out that gamey and reptilian flavors go well with the lashings of lemongrass and herbal, sour notes that dominate Vietnamese cuisine. The slow-cooked quail is a favorite way to ease into some of the more obscure animals, its skin burnished with the tropical sweetness of the coconut in its cooking liquid. The tender meat practically jumps from the tiny bones into your mouth. Luckily it comes draped over rice, saving diners a frantic search for something to mop up all the extra quail and coconut drippings.
Bánh Mì at Tony's Bakery or Q Bakery
When it comes down to picking the best bánh mì from the hundreds around the city, the ones with the freshest bread are the ones that stand out from the pack. Both Tony's and Q, which are separated only by the large parking lot in front of the Viet Wah supermarket, bake their own bread. At Tony's, the bread is light and flaky, shrapnel crumbs shooting off in every direction with each bite, leaving a trail that Hansel and Gretel could have followed to a much safer lunch. At Q, the bread is chewier, making it slightly more difficult to cleanly bite off a chunk of sandwich, but the jalapeños are spicier, the pickles a more perfect balance of sweet and sour, the meat a bit more flavorful. Q does a bang up job with the standard fillings (grilled pork, Vietnamese ham), but Tony's white fish (basa) bánh mì is rightfully famous for the light, crisp fried fish and the bite of chive garlic oil. In the great bánh mì taste-off, it comes down to a chance to choose your own deciding factor: for the bread and fish lovers, it's Tony's, for those in search of the strongest flavors and classic meat fillings, it's Q.
Hot Pot at Ben Thanh
The blue neon screams out "Lẩu dê" from the window of Ben Thanh. That translates to goat hot pot, and the sight of such a unique and intriguing dish was what first brought me here years ago. Since then, I've worked my way through the entire menu, sampling the Hanoi-style roast pork and accidentally ordering a $30 whole fried catfish that could have fed a family. The friendly service at Ben Thanh makes ordering less familiar dishes easy, and with the hot pot, they're happy to handhold and make sure everyone knows what they're doing.
The hot pot comes on a burner, bubbling away, while any additional table space is filled up with things to dip into the soup. In the house special, the soup is hot and sour, the lemongrass so thick it's like a field of reeds in a lake. The noodles are bún, the basic Vietnamese rice vermicelli. Like a Chinese hot pot, there's a meat and fish tray (beef, chicken, squid, fish, and clams), and a vegetable tray with chunks of pineapple for sweetness and whole okra pods, which are always the surprising favorite, retaining a bit of crispness as they absorb the flavors of the lemongrass-lashed soup.