Joe Dang, a Houston Vietnamese-American, was sitting at a table outside Lee's Sandwiches on Bellaire considering his lunch. "How's the sandwich?" I asked him.
"The baguette is awesome, the best I've ever had," he said, inviting me to sit down. "And the lemonade is good, too. But the sandwich is so-so."
I nearly wrecked my car straining to get a better look at this place the first time I passed by. It's an enormous building with a drive-thru lane and a towering blow-up sculpture of a bag of baguettes mounted on top. A sign under the beckoning breads reads, "Fresh baguettes every 30 minutes." And a neon sign in the window that looks just like Krispy Kreme's hot-doughnuts sign reads, "Hot baguettes now."
Lee's Sandwiches, which is headquartered in San Jose, California, has 18 locations in California, with eight more under construction. The Bellaire restaurant is the first in Texas.
The building is part of a retail construction boom on Bellaire. There are three new shopping centers nearing completion that all promise to challenge the dominance of Hong Kong City Mall. An elegant-looking center just east of Wilcrest has a sign indicating Kim Son will open its first Bellaire location there. And another center east of Beltway 8 looks like it may rival Hong Kong City Mall in square footage. New Asian restaurants are already open there.
"What's your favorite sandwich shop?" I asked Joe Dang as I got up to order some sandwiches inside.
"Alpha Bakery," he said, pointing across the street to Hong Kong City Mall. I laughed and told him I already had an Alpha Bakery combination sandwich sitting on the front seat of my car. I was planning to compare the new upstart Lee's Sandwiches with the reigning champ.
But the second I set foot inside Lee's Sandwiches, I realized there was no comparison. Alpha Bakery is a cramped little retail space with a few tables that bakes fresh banh mi rolls and sells excellent sandwiches for $1.50 each. Lee's Sandwiches is a three-ring Vietnamese fast-food circus with ice cream, hot Vietnamese Twinkies and enough space for a couple hundred people to hang out. Their sandwiches are slightly more expensive, starting at $1.85, but once you get a look at the place, the 35 cents doesn't matter much.
I ordered a combination sandwich -- which comes with pâté and two different kinds of lunch meat -- and a coffee, and got my drink along with a receipt. When they called my number, I went to pick up my sandwich. But it wasn't the $1.85 combination sandwich I had ordered, it was the $2.35 "special combination" with more meat. When I pointed out the mistake to the manager, he said I could have the more expensive sandwich for the same price. I couldn't think of a way to tell him that I didn't want the more expensive sandwich.
When I got home, I sliced the two sandwiches in half and compared them. Based on the price, the Lee's special combination should have had an advantage, but the quality of the meat on the Alpha Bakery sandwich was much higher.
A woman who happened to be hanging around in my kitchen looking for lunch volunteered to join in the taste test by trying both sandwiches. But she reneged on her offer after she picked up the Lee's sandwich, opened it up to inspect the contents and extracted a weird square of lunch meat that seemed to be a mosaic of white cartilage slices set in bright red gelatin.
"What do they call this: parts loaf?" she asked sarcastically, feeding the square to the dog. I pulled another slice of the same stuff off the uneaten half-sandwich and nibbled at it. The little white pieces were crunchy; I wondered if they were pickled pig's ears. I like Chinese pickled pig's ears. I like head cheese and most other offal loafs, too. And there were similar conglomerated lunch meat slices in the Alpha Bakery sandwich, but they were soft and fatty like mortadella. The red squares in Lee's combination sandwich were disagreeably rubbery.
I also brought home two of Lee's phenomenal baguettes, which sell for $1 apiece. I made tuna salad poor boys on them. The picky eater in the kitchen thought the tuna sandwiches were sensational.
My second visit to Lee's Sandwiches was on a Saturday at around 12:30 p.m. I took two high school students with me. They were amazed. We tried to count the number of people and agreed it was somewhere around 175. There were families with kids, old Vietnamese guys reading newspapers and drinking coffee, and lots of teenagers.
Lee's is designed for hanging out. It's airy and spacious, with a two-story ceiling, spick-and-span tile floors, several television sets and lots of bright neon signs. There are retail shelves with Vietnamese treats, an Internet access area, outdoor seating and lots of spectator activities.
My daughter watched an automated machine that cranked out hot little cream puffs called delimanjoo cakes. She bought a box of 12 for $3 that we scarfed in seconds. Imagine a miniature Twinkie hot out of the oven, and you've got the flavor profile.
The baguette bakery is fully automated, and it operates behind a glass wall so you can watch the bread being baked -- another concept borrowed from Krispy Kreme. The racks holding the baguettes rotate inside the oven for even cooking. It's quite a sight.
There was a long wait for sandwiches, so after we ordered some, we went to the express line and ordered iced Vietnamese coffees and some hot, crusty domes called pâté chaud, which cost $1 each. We drank the coffee and ate the pastries while we waited. The pastry was wonderfully flaky and buttery. One had a chicken pâté filling, and the other had pork pâté inside, and while we liked them both, we couldn't figure out which was which.
Lee's Sandwiches also serves ice cream, in both the usual flavors and in Asian favorites such as durian, avocado, jackfruit and soursop. The ice cream looks soft and billowy, like whipped cream. I tried a cup with two scoops, one durian and one mango, and it turned out that, despite appearances, the ice cream was quite hard. The mango was delicious, with big chunks of fruit. And the odiferous durian gave me sulphurous indigestion, as usual. (Will I ever give up?)
There's also a steam table full of hot Vietnamese puddings made of sweetened mung beans, taro, corn, green beans and more. And then there are Danish pastries and croissants. Did I mention the Belgian waffles?
We took our sandwiches home. The No. 65 "European sandwich," a baguette stuffed with turkey, roast beef and cheese, was terrible. The turkey was watery, the roast beef was well done, and the cheese included an American single. The No. 5 grilled pork and the No. 4 grilled chicken Asian sandwiches were both passable, though like the pâté chaud fillings, they were difficult to tell apart. And the meat portion seemed smaller than what I was used to at Alpha Bakery.
In the interest of objectivity, I did a little experiment. I bought a barbecue pork sandwich at Alpha Bakery for $1.50 and a barbecue pork sandwich at Lee's for $1.85. Then I weighed the fillings and the whole sandwiches on my kitchen scale.
The Alpha Bakery sandwich contained 110 grams of pork and other fillings on an eight-and-a-half-inch, 110-gram roll, for a total weight of 220 grams. The Lee's sandwich held 100 grams of pork and other fillings on a ten-inch, 110-gram baguette, for a total weight of 210 grams. (Your mileage may vary.)
So Lee's sandwich is a little bit skimpier than Alpha Bakery's sandwich, and it costs 35 cents more. But when I sampled both of them with a bowl of split pea soup, I came to a remarkable discovery: They tasted equally great. Especially dunked in the soup.
The new guys from California may not offer quite as good a deal as their neighbor in Hong Kong City Mall. And if you're picky about lunch meat, you have to be careful what you order. But the scene is what makes Lee's Sandwiches worth the trip -- it's the Venice Beach of Vietnamese sandwich shops.
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