Tracking Down Vietnamese Snacks at Minh Tam's Market

"Special" indeed, if only I could understand what I was buying.
Sometimes a little sleuthing leads to the sort of hidden gems every foodie likes to have in their bag of secret Seattle eats. Weeks ago, following a rather disappointing dim sum binge at Joy Palace in Columbia City, my fellow gluttons and I stumbled into neighboring Tammy's Deli and Bakery--a Vietnamese shop selling traditional snacks and quick meals to go. We fawned over the still-warm banh tet and banh chung (please excuse my lack of appropriately placed accents), a rice, yellow bean, and pork dish steamed in banana leaves, though what I most wanted was the store's banh da lon, a layered sweet rice cake/jelly hybrid made with tapioca flour that tastes of coconut but has the beautiful bright green hue of pandan. I picked up a package of this cellophane-wrapped sweet and was disappointed to read that it wasn't made in-house, but rather at another Seattle location called Minh Tam's Market. My question: Why bother with second-hand treats when you can head to the source?

So I used some personal gumshoe skills and ended up this past weekend at Minh Tam's Market at 1040 S. Jackson St. in the International District. While Martin Luther King Jr. Way may be unparalleled for obscure Asian grocery shopping (and eating), South Jackson Street is a close second, as evidenced by this market and deli nearly hidden behind the much larger Viet Wah Supermarket. It's the sort of place you can pop into for a quick lunch for one, or just as easily pick up a restaurant's worth of supplies like industrial-sized containers of fish sauce and sesame oil.

The important thing in places like this is to not pay attention to anything you may look for in Whole Foods--things like cleanliness, let's say, or proper food handling. Pay no attention to the miscellaneous liquids pooled on the floor, the layer of dust that has settled on some of the products that line the shelves, the slight discoloration of a few of the less popular meat choices. It should be common sense to stick to what a place does best--in this case, pretty much anything with a Vietnamese-only label, from pickled canned goods to Asian produce, offal to housemade bulk items and packaged foods to go.

A few things you'll find here: fresh tropical fruits (though likely previously frozen for shipping) like longan, lychee, durian, and dragon fruit; huge bags of cheaply priced pho ingredients like anise stars and cinnamon sticks; tubs of pork blood either cooked or uncooked; freezers full of cassava, vegetarian "meat" products, and wonton wrappers; bushels of Chinese broccoli, water spinach, Thai basil, and a laundry list of greens unfamiliar to a Western palate (or cooking vocabulary); duck feet, chicken feet, pig feet; jars of unlabeled and unidentifiable pickled items; bulk candies like dried lotus seeds and containers of various meat jerkies coated in a fiery red powder.

But the bulk items aren't the only way to piece together a ready-to-eat meal at Minh Tam's. The shop has a good selection of picnic-worthy Vietnamese lunchables that are mostly made in-house. Banh mi, those most delicious sandwiches served on French baguettes and loaded with cilantro and jalapenos, are just two dollars and made to order. Spring rolls showcasing pinkened shrimp are being rolled by an employee, and nearby whole barbecued ducks and slabs of pork hang ready to be ordered. Cha lua, a tube-shaped popular Vietnamese processed meat, is still steaming in huge bubbling pots at the back of the shop. And of course there's my banh da lon, still fresh and with the desired combination of perfect texture and subtle sweetness.

The look of this place may not be anything special, but the fact that they're making their own food--the types of food many of Seattle's more prominent Asian markets source elsewhere or only offer frozen--is worth a trip back in itself, if you're as big of fan of good Vietnamese grub as I am. And I'll be telling others to go there, whether for lunch or to restock the pantry, as well.

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