A Dozen Dives: Tam Deli & Cafe

12 places we’re drawn to in spite of ourselves. And sometimes in spite of themselves.
Day 7: Tam Deli & Cafe
8222 N. Lamar Blvd., Suite D33. 834-6458, no website.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday-Sunday. Closed Tuesday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 04.15.12
Calling Tam Deli a dive is like squeezing a toddler into an evening gown so she’ll fit your definition of a beauty pageant, you sick freak. It’s too clean, too tidy, too well-lit to be the kind of dive where you lean against the wall and lift pictures from the grime like Silly Putty. No, Tam Deli’s a dive in the sense that you feel at home here, like you walked into Tam Bui’s kitchen instead of a light-industry strip mall on North Lamar next to a toner store and a bat shop. The tables are scattered with media pages under glass: Texas Monthly, the Austin Chronicle, Fearless Critic and quite a few pages I laid out as a Statesman designer. It’s an easy target for praise, with banh mi sandwiches on crispy baguettes and bowls of pho that set a high standard for affordable Vietnamese food. The guys who opened Elizabeth Street Cafe know that. They’d been Tam Deli regulars before they started doing their own Vietnamese impersonation on South First. They forgot to borrow the affordable part.
What you’re eating: Focus. There must be more than 100 dishes here, but if you want a full-on Tam Deli lunch, you’ll start with the No. 50 pho ($6.25/small), a beef noodle soup loaded with brisket and round steak and pieces of  meatball the color and density of beer brats. It’s a restorative, the soup every hospital should prescribe, with ribbons of slurping starches, light beef stock and fish sauce for hydration and fortifying proteins that remind you there’s a reason to live. Pile on corpulent bean sprouts, bitter cilantro, fresh jalapeño and a squirt of lime and it’s a square meal in a circular vessel. The full-speed experience requires a banh mi sandwich, too, on the best thing the French ever brought to Vietnam: the baguette. At Tam Deli, it’s as gloss-perfect as prop food in a model home with a center like whipped bakery floss. The No. 14 ($4.95) is a simple construction of grilled pork cut into thin strips, mayonnaise, cucumbers, matchstick jalapeños and tangy pickled julienned carrots. It’s built to fill you up without bogging you down, a deceptively demur sandwich for its basket-stretching size.
What you’re drinking: Iced Vietnamese coffee ($3), because you like the way the sweet condensed milk cascades through the pitch of French roast like Guinness in a pint glass. The process of water dripping through the grinds in a cup-top stainless filter makes this an event every time. It walks hand-in-hand with a banh choux pastry that’s like a feathery cocoon around billowing custard cream (69 cents each).
Other options: Vietnamese crepes with shrimp and pork ($7.25), grilled lemongrass beef ($7.95), a vermicelli bowl with fried eggrolls and grilled pork ($7.45), shrimp banh mi with boiled egg ($5.75) and the No. 10 banh mi with pate, ham and roasted chicken.
 (Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)