Lee’s Sandwiches wants to bring banh mi to the masses and in the process, redefine the concept of fast-food. All franchised locations are outfitted with Krispy Kreme-esque fluorescent signs, automated ordering systems, and full-color bilingual menus. With 37 operations in California, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, and a handful of international locations, for better or worse, Lee’s Sandwiches is the face of fast-food Vietnamese cuisine. This ain’t no Mom and Pop shop op.
Prior to my recent trip to The Aloha State, I swung by Lee’s Sandwiches in Alhambra to pick up some banh mi for my in-flight dinner. The store’s interior reminded me a bit of the air-con street food shops in Vietnam, but slightly less polished.
Ordering took longer than usual due to the bilingual menu—it was boggling to see photos of banh mi accompanied by English descriptors. The menu featured Vietnamese text as well, but the font was so small that squinting was required. Even though “banh mi dac biet” and “combination” are one in the same, the Vietnamese name is more familiar, and thus makes more sense.
While automated ordering systems and fluorescent signs add nice touches of modernity to Lee’s Sandwiches, the innovation that impressed me the most were the wrappers the sandwiches arrived in. Usually, banh mi comes wrapped in plain white butcher paper. If a vendor is especially mindful, she’ll scribble the sandwich’s name sloppily on the paper.
The sheets of butcher paper at Lee’s Sandwiches have the name of each sandwich neatly printed on them, which makes the process of figuring out which sandwich is which a breeze.
I picked up three sandwiches to sample; each one was priced at $2.45. From left to right—banh mi dac biet (cold cuts, forcemeats, pate), banh mi thit nuong (grilled pork), and banh mi xa xiu (sweet Chinese barbecued pork).
Firstly, an assessment of the bread. The baguettes at Lee’s Sandwiches aren’t a thick mess like some, but were so chewy that my jaws ached after a few bites. I’m not sure if I was served particularly old loaves, but dang, chew, chew, chew!
As far as fillings go, the “combination” banh mi was smeared with a great pate that moistened and seasoned the entire sandwich. The thit nuong was a major disappointment due to its saccharine-like sweetness, odd texture, and lack of charcoal essence. The xa xiu was solid.
The banh mi at Lee’s Sandwiches aren’t especially awesome, but compared to other fast-food options on the market, their product is easily tops. If there was a Lee’s Sandwiches for every McDonald’s, the world would be a better place.
1289 East Valley Boulevard
Alhambra, CA 91801