Update: It is with a heavy heart that we must report that Yeh Yeh’s has closed their Bellevue location as of 06/06/2016. Their Lynnwood location is still in operation.
I don’t spend a lot of time east of Lake Washington. There’s no prejudice behind it. I don’t spend a lot of time in Boise either, because on a day to day basis I just don’t have a reason to be over there. When something drags me East of the 405 though, you’ll generally find me in one place. In fact, if you see any posters with my face on them in the Bellevue area or a some police bulletin offering a reward for my capture, (most likely related to some bacon or seafood related crime spree), wander on down NE 20th and pull into a little business park spackled onto the side of a hill. Throw it in park beneath a sign that says Yeh Yeh’s. Call in Dogg the bounty hunter and wait. I’ll wander out salty and sated, covered in breadcrumbs and spicy mayonnaise.
Walk past Yeh Yeh’s Sandwich shop around lunch time and you’ll find a line snaking out the door full of business people of all different shapes and sizes and colors. Full suits and business casual, black, white, Indian, Asian, men and women in varying degrees of anticipation. A corporate cultural diversity catalogue of people being pez dispensered into a building for a sandwich of similar attributes. The Bahn Mi.
The French colonialists brought the baguette to Vietnam in the early 19th century. They’d dragged it through parts of Saigon and stuffed pork parts into it with a slab of butter, as is the French minimalist fashion. Then they’d popped it behind some glass in the fancy parts of the country, where it had been favored by only the richest Vietnamese citizens who’d decided to embrace the French ideals and drink the froofy KoolAid. When the French popped smoke and abandoned the country in 1954, they left their pricey meat sandwiches behind, and somewhere along the line, the hard-up, make-it-work, put-good-shit-in-the-weird-shit-till-the-weird-shit-tastes-good, kinda people got their hands on it. They dumped the butter and slathered that flaky roll with mayonnaise. Ham? Get the fuck out! Ladies and gentlemen now introducing porkbelly and cold cuts! (raucous applause). Hey, I’ve got some Pickled veggies and Jalepeno. Stuff ‘em in there. Rice noodles? Fuck it, why not? By the time the country reunified in the 1970’s, street vendors were slanging that business on the street corners, hot, cheap and easy (another solid dating profile “about” me section). The Bahn Mi Sandwich had become an integral part of Vietnamese cooking from the top down.
Cut to, me behind the counter of Yeh Yeh’s Sandwich shop with a 10 spot in my pocket. There’s a fan blowing hard into the kitchen from a shelf against the wall, and it’s rustling the veggies in trays and bamboo plants in their jade pots and the wax paper next to the register, but not the pictures on the walls because there aren’t any. Bare, beige, walls with dents and dings. Gold shrine at the foot of the countertop, purple Buddha by the condiments, glass fish on the freezer.
Working like mortar crew beneath the roar of the fans, the line cooks. They’re stuffing meat into baguettes and chopping pickled carrots and cucumbers, sliding it down the line to the guy with the mayo, double fisting squeeze tubes with serenity in his eyes and sweat on his forehead. A woman in Lane Bryant leans over the counter and snaps her fingers at the girl at the end of the line with the bread knife, fileting baguettes with surgical precision. Lane Bryant says “excuse me, will you cut mine in half” and surgeon says, “No.” and for a flash and a half we’re all in line in the rain in Ho Chi Minh waiting for street sandwiches
Lane Bryant takes it like a champ. What’s she gonna do? Walk out? She wants a sandwich.
It’s all giddiness for me for the next 8 minutes that it takes for me to order and get a sandwich in my mouth, because I know the food had to be pretty good. You can’t get away with swaggering like that unless you know that a half pound of Ho-Lee-Shit is going to wipe slate clean at the end of it. Unless you know that Lane Bryant is going to sit down at her table, shove a sandwich in her mouth and forget how she even got here.
I am not disappointed.
As of March, 2016, I paid $5.35 for a grilled pork Bahn-Mi with a fried egg on the side. You can’t get diarrhea at an Arby’s for $5.35.
All the other things, the food.
Flaky crust with a chewy center wrapped around grilled pork. Little tang on the pickled veggies and noodles, some zip on the jalepeno. Mayonnaise with the alley-oop, fried egg smashing the fucking backboard. Wash all that down with some bubble tea, which, is basically ice-cream with tapioca balls in it (Whole different can of delicious ass worms that I’ll save for a different post).
Anyway, I sit there chewing on all that historical mish-mash in that drab little office building with the fan working overtime and the line cooks slanging goodness to the tune of knives singing and pork grilling, mixed into a group so enthusiastic and diverse that I wonder if I’ve wandered onto the set of a Captain Planet remake, and I think to myself, just like every time before, ‘I should get out to Bellevue more often.’