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Beloved Seattle Deli Closed Its Doors After 27 Years, Highlighting Downtown Development Tensions

The Vietnamese deli’s closure is a worrisome sign for the International District’s future

Affordable and portable Vietnamese bites made Seattle Deli a neighborhood favorite.
| Pattaramon Gordon

On June 1, Seattle Deli — a beloved Vietnamese-owned fixture in the Chinatown International District — closed its doors after 27 years in business. It was a gut-wrenching loss for many who enjoyed its fantastic Vietnamese sandwiches, coffee, and steam-table specials.

After the deli moved from its original location on South Main Street to 12th Avenue in 2002, renowned food writer Nancy Leson (via the Seattle Times) wrote that “it pays to peruse the goods piled high in cases and on counters, and only a fool would leave without grabbing a pair of salad rolls, a half-dozen sesame-sprinkled sweet-bean balls, and a trio of hot, crunchy spring rolls.” Meanwhile, the steam-table offerings fed families for practically pennies. But the star was always the sandwiches. Just a few dollars apiece, they made the perfect go-to for picnics or hikes, the eight-inch roll filled with grilled chicken, a pile of cured pork products, or tofu, all bolstered by julienned cucumber, pickled carrots and daikon, zesty sauce, and a sprinkling of cilantro.

But, like many businesses in the area before it, and surely more to come, the shop’s future came down to its real estate value in a rapidly changing city. The letter in the Seattle Deli’s window announcing the closure mentioned that the property would be redeveloped and that the owners were looking for a location to reopen, hopefully not far away. When reached for a comment, Thach Nguyen, the owner of both Seattle Deli and the building, mentioned being very busy, but didn’t supply further details.

Seattle Deli closed on June 1 after 27 years in business. (Credit: Gabe Guarente for Eater)

The property was sold to developers for $3.5 million and is slated to be a nine-story mixed-use building connected to the Yesler Terrace redevelopment adjacent to Little Saigon, the Central District, and First Hill. Completed in 1941, Yesler Terrace was the country’s first racially integrated public housing development, and housed 493 families when the redevelopment project began in 2012. The new construction includes public housing and replaces all the units lost, but Seattle Housing Authority funded the project by selling off parcels to private developers, most notably Paul Allen-founded developer Vulcan.

The Seattle Deli property itself sold to Lowe Enterprises, a real estate investment firm, earlier this year. (Eater Seattle reached out to Lowe for comment, but hasn’t heard back as of publication.)

Barbecue pork noodle salad. (Credit: Pattaramon Gordon)
Desserts included rau cau and che ba mau. (Credit: Dennis Dashiell)

When the Seattle Times first sang the Vietnamese takeout shop’s praises in 1999, talk of redeveloping the neighboring Yesler Terrace hadn’t yet started, and Amazon employed fewer than 8,000 people. Banh mi were still new enough to the city that the Times felt compelled to provide a description. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a local unfamiliar with the crisp baguettes that Seattle Deli sold four for $1 in bags by the door or stuffed with mixed-vegetable pickles, then thickly layered with sliced grilled or cured meats for little more.

But this is part of the continuing tale of Seattle’s International District, where development moves forward at a breakneck pace. Once an undesirable real estate market where those priced out of more expensive neighborhoods ended up, now, the ID’s convenient proximity to Downtown and excellent transportation connections have made it one of the hottest areas in town for new projects.

That’s why the deli’s closing wasn’t much of a surprise for Quynh Pham, the executive director of Friends of Little Saigon (FLS), an eight-year-old community development organization hoping to preserve and showcase the Vietnamese-American community centered around 12th and Jackson. Developers were interested in the property, Pham explains, because it is the last piece of the Yesler Terrace project — an effort which, in the eyes of some, has dismantled a strong community. (While the number of affordable housing units will remain the same after the project is finished, many people ended up moving out of the city after the closure of the Yesler Terrace housing facilities and the sale of land to private developers ignited a tense debate.)

Two members of the Chinatown International District Coalition wrote recently in the Seattle Times to express their concern about the half-dozen development projects in the pipeline for the larger neighborhood, which do not have money or units set aside to help the people and businesses displaced when they enter the community. “We are for development that is rooted in and driven by the needs of our community,” wrote Jacqueline Wu and Nina Nobuko Wallace, using the history of the neighborhood to show that equitable, community-led development is possible.

Similarly, FLS sees its role as advocating for business owners, so when rumors of projects like this come in, it stands ready to help the business owners fight for their location and mediate with developers. Because the Seattle Deli building was owned by the business, and the owner wasn’t willing to go public, Pham says FLS reached out, but didn’t really do much. Pham adds that the owners expressed interest in returning to the area.

In the meantime, Pham says, “We’re now looking at these changes as new opportunities to grow and expand the future of the neighborhood.” The organization looks for ways to prevent the community from feeling pushed out; it also encourages diners who enjoy the neighborhood to look for ways to support the community and its businesses. “Stay longer,” she suggests, “not just the hour or two for eating.”

UPDATED 6/14/19, 2:30 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misstated that Vulcan was working with Lowe Enterprises on the Yesler project. The two developers have purchased separate properties within the project; Vulcan’s properties north of Yesler Way did not have any existing retail on them.

(Special thanks to Sarah Anne Lloyd from Curbed Seattle for advising on this article.)

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