Photos by Anne Fishbein
Henry Ford applied the concept of the assembly line to automobile manufacture; August Escoffier to the vast hotel banquet kitchen. The McDonald brothers broke American diner cooking down into a set of simple, easily replicated procedures and transformed the world’s restaurant in dustry in the process. Starbucks formalized espresso drinks. La Brea Bakery proved that it was possible to devote a vast industrial assembly line to the making of slow-rise artisanal bread.
But there has never been a testament to the virtues of standardization quite like the assembly line for Vietnamese banh mi at Lee’s Sandwiches, a small chain of restaurants centered around bright kitchens, clean as an operating chamber, that seem to stretch into infinity. A study in balletic grace, teams of sandwich makers, all in white, slice hot baguettes in half, chop off the pointy ends, then neatly layer meat and condiments that are sized to the skinny bread. Bakers march across the kitchen bearing trays of freshly baked French bread for the sandwich makers. A sign in the front window, perhaps inspired by the display at Krispy Kreme, flashes Hot Baguettes in burning red neon. (For the convenience, no doubt, of customers interested in making baguette-point bread pudding at home, big plastic bags of severed baguette ends are for sale behind the counter.) In another part of the kitchen, rows of coffee filters slowly drip strong, black coffee into rows of plastic cups so that Vietnamese coffee, a coffee of leisurely afternoons, is instantly available. Numbers flicker across a large video display — 73, your order is ready — and pictures of brightly colored sandwiches zoom across another.
The Garden Grove branch of Lee’s, it is rumored, serves more than 10,000 of these sandwiches each day.
Banh mi, of course, are the Vietnamese equivalent of submarine sandwiches, with charcuterie and vegetables smeared with mayonnaise, laid into a baguette, and wrapped in a neatly folded sheet of paper. Banh mi are often filled with grilled chicken, pork or slices of herbed beef. The most important banh mi is the sandwich usually referred to as banh mi dac biet, which is a best-of-pig combo sandwich: ham, headcheese, liver pâté, and sometimes a sort of sour ham, a filet of fresh cucumber, pickled slivers of carrot and daikon, sliced chiles and a handful of cilantro. It’s a pretty spectacular sandwich.
Until recently, banh mi were almost always sold in slightly dingy Vietnamese delicatessens, where they were put together among piles of steamed banana-leaf concoctions, baroque mung-bean drinks and plastic-wrapped packages of warm, seasoned rice — and the deli sandwiches were good. The Ba Le chain, which extends to Vietnamese neighborhoods across the country, was a step up, at least in terms of volume: At mealtime, wrapped sandwiches were stacked behind the counter like cordwood.
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And then the success of the Lee’s chain led to an explosion of banh mi, first in Orange County’s Little Saigon, then in the San Gabriel Valley, where the banh mi shops are threatening to eclipse even the boba shops in their sheer numbers. A quick drive along Valley Boulevard reveals Ba Le, Baguette Express, Baguette du Jour, Banh Mi So 1, and a brand-new Alhambra outlet of Lee’s Sandwiches, among a dozen other places to buy the tasty sandwiches.
First among the New Jack banh mi slingers is probably Mr. Baguette, which replicates the Lee’s formula down to the menu boards and the video screens, but which makes its own high-quality charcuterie — ham and headcheese and steamed pork loaves — that it sells separately by the pound, and bakes its own baguettes. The fresh fruit smoothies, the Vietnamese iced coffee, the selection of the ham and cheese croissants you will never order are almost identical to Lee’s. The soft, luscious pâté on the sandwiches at both restaurants has the same mildly gamy tang. The pickled vegetables at both places come packaged separately from the banh mi in little Baggies, so that you can garnish your sandwiches to taste. But at Mr. Baguette, for a quarter extra, you can get the banh mi made on a fresh baguette frosted with toasted sesame seeds. Advantage, it would seem, to Mr. Baguette!
But are the baguettes at Lee’s Sandwiches just that little bit crunchier? Is the headcheese headier? Are the crowds more excited? Are the minuscule, airy cream puffs behind the counter just that tiny bit more delicious than any sweet of which Mr. Baguette is capable? Let the games begin.
Lee’s Sandwiches, 1289 Valley Blvd., Alhambra, (626) 282-5589. Mr. Baguette, 8702 E. Valley Blvd., Rosemead, (626) 288-9166.