Two cultures come together in one Oakland kitchen
on December 9, 2014
“Welcome home,” a man says to two ladies upon their entrance. They return his smile, but exchange glances, looking confused. They’re not sure how to answer.
Moments later, a woman and man enter.
“Welcome home,” the man says, once again, with the same beaming smile.
This woman knows the drill. “Hi, Tony,” she says.
Tony Torres hurries back behind the counter, moving like he’s late to something important. He yells an order into the kitchen: “Two tacos pastor! One vegetarian banh mi!”
Welcome to Saigon Deli Sandwich (& Taco Valparaiso), located on East Oakland’s 14th Avenue and International Boulevard. Torres is co-owner; he’s from Valparaiso, Mexico. His partner is Dieu Thi Ngo; she’s from Minh Hai, Vietnam.
Ngo (pronounced “No”) emerges from the kitchen to resume her usual role of working the register, which allows Torres to return to the floor to greet customers. Unlike Torres, Ngo doesn’t share many words as she takes orders. But like Torres, she works deliberately and with care to ensure orders get served quickly and correctly.
Ngo grew up in the middle of thirteen siblings, and she was taught to help prepare meals as a little girl. With a smile, she’ll tell you she’s always enjoyed preparing food for loved ones. In 1985, she immigrated to the Bay Area via a boat ride across the Pacific. With the help of a brother, she received her visa and went to work with various relatives in a banh mi restaurant until, more than three years ago, she decided it was time to branch out and open her own place.
That’s when Torres came into the mix. He’d been working on International Blvd., near Ngo’s new restaurant. He approached her with an idea: We should join forces by selling our different foods – in the same place.
“I told her, ‘Let’s try it!’” Torres says, explaining how he convinced Ngo to allow him to bring his secret taco recipe and salsa into her restaurant.
“I said this would be a good thing and, with more food, we would reach more of the community. So we tried it and, yes, it has worked quite nicely.”
As a young boy growing up in Mexico, Torres went to work at a sawmill, convincing his boss to pay him not with money but with food. Soon, he was walking home through mountain trails for more than a day and night, by himself, with bags of rice, beans and cookies to help feed his family.
Torres puts it simply: he wanted to take care of his family from the start, and food proved a key ingredient.
Which takes us back to the quiet but growing success of Saigon Deli. According to customers, much of that success stems from great service and great food. However, it’s worth noting that Torres and Ngo’s unique collaboration of cuisines, hosted in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in America, stands alone in the San Antonio District.
East of Lake Merritt, down International or 12th Street, neighboring storefronts speak to the city’s colors and languages: the Mexican bar, Victor’s, is next to the Chinese restaurant, Thanh Ky. There are fashion, massage and reflexology businesses, like Hong’s Beauty Salon and Nghe Cung Beauty Salon. There’s a Baptist church, a New Apostolic church, Quach’s Locksmith, Mekong Reality Mortgage, the Long Hing Supermarket, the Super Laundry Lavanderia.
And next door to the lavanderia, to the right, a sign on the adjacent site reads “Saigon Deli Sandwich.” Beneath it, on the glass store-front, hangs one more sign: “Taqueria.”
“Goddamn, I love this place,” one college student says, slowly and emphatically, to his friend who he’s brought here for the first time. After a few bites, his friend eats her taco and agrees with a slow nod that says oh yes.
Another diner describes the three-dollar banh mi she just enjoyed. “You can get one of these sandwiches in Alameda,” she says, “but it costs seven bucks.” She adds, with a shrug, “You can also get a banh mi cheap in Chinatown, but they’re just not as good.”
Another customer who grew up in the neighborhood shares a common observation about Torres’ routine service and welcoming: “Tony is like a relative.”
In partnering up with Ngo, Torres knew they possessed a promising location on the corner of 14th and International, where there’s much traffic and a four-lane intersection with stoplights. However, the bus stop outside their doors brought potential trouble.
“It was not a good scene,” Torres says. “Many prostitutes, and people not doing good things. Many kinds of people who, when the sun went down, might kind of…scare people.”
After a short time of transition, Torres began confronting the corner and locals with, as he puts it, “kindness.”
“I’d go outside and offer them a taco and say how we’re a family restaurant and how they’re welcome, and that they should try our food,” Torres says.
Soon, he adds, many of these locals would respond to his greetings and occasionally come around to buy a taco or wave hello as they passed by on the sidewalk. Prostitutes and drug dealers seemed to take their business up the street.
“These people are not bad people,” Torres says. “But they are embarrassed, once they know you are a family place. And so they respect that, more often than not.”
One faithful customer, Regina Davis, agrees with Torres on the restaurant’s impact on the neighborhood. “I think that has something to do with the fact that people are doing some things they shouldn’t be doing because they don’t have a family atmosphere in their own life,” Davis says. “They think, ‘I might have to do what I have to do, but I’m not going to do it here.’ It’s almost like the family atmosphere acts like a protective shield.”
By offering two genres of food, Saigon Deli gradually serves more and more people who visit for a first-rate East Oakland taco, and end up leaving having experienced a first-rate East Oakland banh mi (or vice versa). And for many, it’s proven first and unexpected forays into different cultures.
“You go [to Saigon Deli], and you never know what you might eat,” says Tluang Salai, who works at a nearby Catholic charity organization that helps refugees and immigrants relocate and transition into the Bay Area.
Salai came to Oakland from Burma as a refugee in 2005, and today he helps fellow refugees and asylees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and Congo find their way in a new city. Salai says he appreciates the idea of meshing different cultures under one roof.
“You try something different and you end up eating different things. And then you want to know more,” Salai says. “And that’s good for the community.”
Torres takes that food assessment and applies it to his bigger mission. “It’s about the people,” he says. “If people come here and feel welcome, they’ll try our food. Rich or poor, from any lifestyle, they come here and we’ll feed them well and they can pay us what they can, but they feel like they’re at home – and they get some good food. Very good food.”
As Torres describes his plans for eventually selling their food at catered events or at other locations, he also speaks about donating part of future proceeds to local public schools. Suddenly, he stops, though, as his eyes catch something and return to the present.
A customer has entered the restaurant. Torres stands and smiles.
“Welcome home,” he says.
Saigon Deli Sandwich (& Taco Valparaiso), 1400 International Blvd., Oakland CA, 94606. (510) 536-4746. Open 7 a.m. – 7 p.m., 7 days a week. Cash only.
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