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Where: Saigon Deli, 1237 S Jackson St., 322-3700.

What $13 Gets You: Cold noodles with pork, tapioca dumplings, rice balls stuffed with pork, three sweet

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$13 at Saigon Deli

$13 buys you pounds and pounds of jiggly, plastic-wrapped desserts

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Where: Saigon Deli, 1237 S Jackson St., 322-3700.

What $13 Gets You: Cold noodles with pork, tapioca dumplings, rice balls stuffed with pork, three sweet things, and a can of Diet Coke, plus 50 cents change (couldn't find a tip jar).

Would I eat it again: Many of these specific dishes, no. But I’ll be back.

Many Seattleites love Vietnamese delis for their banh mi, but I’m both obsessed with and mystified by the stacks of plastic-wrapped styrofoam plates displayed around the counter. You could make three lunches out of these cold meals, snacks, and sweets for the price of a turkey sandwich.

Saigon Deli has a small but particularly good-looking arrangement of wrapped goods. Just to make this $13 trip a challenge, I avoided not only sure hits like spring rolls and deep-fried sesame balls but also things I already love, like sticky rice with Chinese sausage and dried shrimp.

I carefully selected three or four packages and gave them to the counterperson. How much? “$6.50,” she called out. Ran back to the fridge for a sweet drink and grabbed another package: $10.50. People were lining up around me, and the maximum capacity of the entire store is six, so I tossed in a can of soda and another dessert to raise the total to $12.50. “You’re on a mission,” the customer next to me said. The plastic grocery sack I was handed held 10 pounds of food. No exaggeration.

My idiot camera's battery died after one shot, and before it fully recharged I ate the rice noodles with roast pork and slices of nem chua, a bright-pink pickled pork sausage studded with whole white peppercorns. The meats came with a fantastic cucumber-carrot-jalapeno salad, cilantro sprigs, and nuoc cham, the ubiquitous dipping sauce. This was my favorite dish. Sorry there's no close-up photo.

 
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Not so good were some sticky-rice balls stuffed with a gritty mixture of ground mung beans and ground pork; when dipping something in nuoc cham doesn’t make it palatable, you know it’s not worth eating. The tapioca crepes above were filled with a tasty mix of shrimp and roast pork. You dunk them in . . . guess what. Loved the filling, especially enhanced by the sweet-tart kick of the nuoc cham, but the tapioca wrapping was too thick and gelatinous. It was like chewing through a hunk of Bubble Yum to get to the good stuff.
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This sippable dessert of sperm-shaped, slippery rice-flour squiggles came with a container of coconut milk and another of a caramel syrup, which you stir into the cup. Sometimes I enjoy the perverse thrill of these weird noodles, which feel like minnows swimming down your throat, but since the cooks burned the caramel, it spoiled the dish.
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The worst and best sweets: Sticky rice mixed with orange food coloring and coconut (left) was so overcooked that it turned into a gelatinous mush Next to it, though, is an addictive pudding/Jell-O/cake with layers of mung-bean paste and some kind of jelly flavored with coconut and pandan leaf (the “Southeast Asian vanilla”). I’m a Midwesterner, raised on Jell-O salad, and something about the creamy gelatinousness of this dessert appealed to me.

This selection of dishes comes off as seven kinds of jiggle, but I was testing boundaries and sending myself an invitation to grow. Next time I go back to Saigon Deli, though, I’m going to pick up the grilled meatballs on a stick and the steamed-pork slices with cucumber salad and nuoc cham. That can't cost more than $4.

 
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