Depending on your route to Mr. Saigon, the new banh mi outpost on Pike Street between Second and Third, you’ll pass a Chipotle, Starbucks, or “coming soon” Evergreens Salad storefront. The prevalence of fast-casual neighbors should give you an idea of the kind of lunch empire that 31-year-old Huy Tat intends to build.
Mr. Saigon slings traditional and contemporary takes on banh mi, the French-influenced Vietnamese sandwich that typically consists of meat (usually pork); plenty of fresh veggies like cucumber, lightly pickled daikon and carrot, and cilantro; a slather of mayo; and spiced pate, all layered into a fresh, airy baguette. That perilous line between a filling and heavy lunch that nine-to-fivers must navigate each day? Banh mi walks it just so.
Tat hails from the family behind the crowd-pleasing Seattle-area noodle institution Hue Ky Mi Gia in the Ding How Center and popular Pacific Rim Center bakery, Lan Hue. He cut his teeth in the restaurant business in the former, a Chinese-Vietnamese noodle house that’s chugged through 10 years in the yellow strip mall at the corner of 12th and Jackson, on the east end of the Chinatown–International District.
With Mr. Saigon’s sleek branding and a cash injection from investors, Tat is jockeying for a share of Seattle’s voracious appetite for fast-casual lunch. He opened two locations within seven months of each other, first near Seattle U, then this one downtown, with a third in Pioneer Square slated for June. In other words: He’s busting out of the ID, swinging.
Tat hopes to draw crowds with both Americanized banh mi and traditional ones. The menu is divided in two: four classic sandwich options, for the “I want what they’re eating on the street in Vietnam” crowd, and four “modern” creations—think vegetarian-friendly or familiar, like teriyaki chicken and barbecue pork—plus premade noodle bowls and salads, Vietnamese-style pastries, and spring rolls.
Somehow, a Mr. Saigon banh mi will only set you back $5.50—a full dollar more than the going rate in the ID—but Tat is betting the value and convenience are enough to get customers to pony up (and vault banh mi into the pantheon of Seattle lunch staples in the process).
"We wanna build, one day, a worldwide company that has stores everywhere... We're already looking at the Subway market," Tat says. But unlike the now-struggling sandwich conglomerate, Mr. Saigon bakes its bread from scratch daily and makes other ingredients fresh, in house. "Like a Chipotle model."
He might just succeed. The pate, a blend of chicken and pork liver with garlic and a generous sprinkle of five-spice, is mixed and steamed onsite. The mayonnaise is whipped up in the back too, where the hearty slabs of tofu are deep fried. The headcheese (a chewy creation made from tendons, ears, and assorted leftover pork bits) is pressed and sliced for the eatery’s namesake sandwich just a few miles away, at Lan Hue.
For now, Tat is expanding just within Seattle. Don't be surprised if you soon see Mr. Saigon's blue logo glowing above any Emerald City sidewalk that streams with badge-bearing employees when the clock strikes noon, because he wants to set up shop anywhere they want to eat lunch.
“We might go east [the direction of Microsoft], we might go Amazon,” Tat says. “We have locations in mind, it's just whenever the right opportunity comes.”