Fed Man 55: Tam Deli & Cafe (24)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 24: Tam Deli & Cafe
8222 N. Lamar Blvd., Suite D33. 512-834-6458, no website.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday-Sunday. Closed Tuesday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 11.05.12
You can build a respectable mom-and-pop shop with nothing more than a sturdy framework of soup and sandwiches. But sturdy enough to stand among the Top 25 on the Fed Man 55? No, if pho and banh mi are the walls and roof, the rest is what makes a house a home. And with a 100-strong menu of value-conscious Vietnamese soul food, Tam Deli is right at home in the No. 24 spot.
It’s not so much a mom-and-pop project as it is a sister act that opened in 1999 with Tam Bui and Tran Ngoc with help from her husband, Nick. Together, they work a square white room with press-on tile floors and glass-top tables skirted in green vinyl, a room that could just as easily be a Tex-Mex diner or the lobby of a payday loan operation. The flourishes here all come from the kitchen, like fritters with shrimp and sweet potato forged into nuggets with the spires and stalactites of crystal formations — or in this case, shrimp tails — that shatter with heat, crunch and oil ($3.99). Their bipolar opposites are neat ribbons of cool green papaya crosshatched with Vietnamese beef jerky that’s like summer sausage with a few more summers behind it ($4.25).
The salad’s savory and sweet elements unite behind Vietnamese food’s universal fish sauce, that golden catalyst of sweet, salt and sour that seems to find its balance in any dish. Pour fish sauce over a bowl of vermicelli noodles with grilled pork and crushed peanuts (bun, $6.95) and it will add a twang to the pork’s fatty opulence, give the tangled noodles extra bounce and trickle down to the shredded lettuce below to pull it together like a vinaigrette. A sauce of fermented fish, garlic, chile flakes and, apparently, a mind of its own.
Tam Deli presents an herb-garden education, too, beyond just the plate of cilantro, basil and bean sprouts alongside a restorative bowl of No. 50 pho ($6.25/$7.25), a beef noodle soup loaded with brisket and round steak and pieces of meatball the color and density of beer brats. A Vietnamese crepe folded over shrimp, pork and bean sprouts ($7.25) comes with a canoe of herbs to wrap around torn bites of that crepe, including Thai basil, cilantro and diep ca, a heart-shaped leaf with the aroma of surf and the blunt nickname “fish herb.” The herb blanket elevates an otherwise humble dish, one that might fare better if it weren’t on the same table with Tam Deli’s strongest assets: banh mi sandwiches, on the best thing the French ever brought to Vietnam: the baguette.
At Tam Deli, the bread’s as gloss-perfect as prop food in a model home with a center like 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. The No. 12 is held together with an iron glove of liver paté, spread like mayonnaise to hold in paper-thin slices of Vietnamese ham and a complement of pickled vegetables. At $3.95, it stands among the best values in Austin, an accolade it shares with the shop’s banh choux cream puffs at 65 cents apiece. With a cup of dark Vietnamese-style coffee swirled with sweetened condensed milk, Tam Deli is a diner from another world, at home in any world.
(TOP: Shrimp-and-yam fritters; banh mi with ham and paté; vermicelli bowl with grilled pork; papaya salad with beef jerky. INSET: Beef noodle pho with round steak, brisket and meatballs and a banh mi with grilled pork; the spartan cafe's interior; banh choux cream puffs. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants