Tacos and Banh Mi: A match made in heaven
On the corner of 14th Avenue and International Boulevard in East Oakland, there's a strip mall with a mini-mart, a laundromat, and then there is Saigon Deli.
"Welcome! Welcome home," co-owner Tony Torres calls out as people walk in the door. He greets all of his customers this way.
Behind the counter, his partner, DieuNgo, takes orders.
"Here we have the taco. And the sandwich. Vietnamese sandwich," she tells a first time customer.
She points to the wall of pictures that display the Banh Mi sandwiches available. Banh Mi are the traditional meat-filled sandwiches of Vietnam and they cost $3.00 here. Right next to those, the Mexican menu has tacos for $1.25.
"When we first opened, people don’t believe that the two menus will be okay," Torres tells me.
When we talk about diversity in America we often use terms like melting pot, or even salad bowl. It's no mistake that we use the metaphor of food to talk about the mixing of cultures, but Saigon Deli takes this literally. Torres is from Valparaiso Zacatecas, Mexico. And Ngo is from Saigon City, Vietnam. When they first met, Ngo had just opened Saigon Deli, and it only sold Vietnamese sandwiches.
Torres worked nearby and had a crazy idea. "She was famous for her sandwiches and my tacos were very, very good," he says.
So Torres approached her and asked if he could sell his tacos alongside her sandwiches. He thought that by mixing their food, they might be able to reach more people in their diverse community. Nestled between Oakland’s Chinatown and the historically Latino Fruitvale, the neighborhood known as San Antonio has a large Asian and Latino population. But at first Ngo was not so sure the fusion made sense.
"She was like, 'I don’t know, I don’t know if it will work.' I told her, 'Listen, it will work. If we work together, this thing will be beautiful,'" Torres remembers.
Now, Saigon Deli is "Saigon Deli Sandwich and Taco Valparaiso."
At 1:00pm on a Monday, the place starts to get crowded. A line forms along the counter. Torres takes an order over the phone while Ngo rings up a customer at the register.
"One seafood combo and one taco to go," Torres calls out.
Torres leads me back to the kitchen where he and three Vietnamese cooks prepare all of the meals. He throws shrimp onto a hot pan and fire dances up around the sides. I watch as he prepares his famous shrimp a la diabla.
"The a la diabla has the Spanish Mexico flavor but it’s over rice, with the Vietnamese salad and bread. So it’s half and half," he explains.
I follow him as he carries the plates out to the dining room.
"Welcome back," Torres says as he hands the plate to a customer.
"Oh my god," the customer exclaims, excitedly.
This moment is why Torres loves his job. "I love to see the expression on their face when they say 'Wow.' And that wow really keeps me running all day long."
Outside the shop, I ask customers what brings them to Saigon Deli.
"I come here pretty much almost every single day of the week, almost," laughs Ken Cuelho, who was one of the very first customers at Saigon Deli. He's developed a friendship with Torres and now Torres customizes his food.
Kris Janik is another frequent guest at Saigon Deli. He says the first time he came to eat here, he ordered before knowing the restaurant was cash only. On top of that, the ATM machine down the street was broken.
"So I run back here to cancel my order. And the owner is like 'No, please take the food and come back later and pay.' And that kind of generosity is not something you get a lot, especially at a little corner sandwich shop." Janik pauses and then adds, "and it’s a really good damn sandwich on top of that."
Janik came back to pay the next day, and he's been coming back ever since.
That sort of kindness is the norm around here. According to Torres, it is a part of the business model.
"For the longest I lived in the business, no one will go home hungry and no one will go home thirsty. Money or no money you will eat. Theres always tomorrow and believe it or not it’s been no one single person who hasn’t come back to pay," Torres says.
It is this trust that keeps the customers coming back. Saigon Deli has created an atmosphere that feels like family, like a second home. Even the flowers on the tabletops have a special feel: they aren’t fake, they are real potted red roses.
And Torres and Ngo aren't just mixing foods, they are also mixing cultures, as a couple. Even if they are still learning each other's language.
"Are you learning Spanish?" I ask Ngo.
"Just a little bit" she says -- word's like "taco, burrito, quesadilla."
Torres says he’s learning a little bit of Vietnamese as well, but the two mostly communicate in English. It isn't always easy, but for these partners in life and in business, their true common language is the language of food.
This piece originally aired on 03/02/2015