Khanh Ho: Upon First Seeing Lee’s Sandwiches

Lee’s Sandwiches is a chrome glass factory food box. Modern, sleek and new, it’s the Vietnamese answer to McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC: a fast food joint with a slow food flavor. At this fine establishment, there are flat screen monitors everywhere, signs depicting various hues of sandwiches overhead and the unprecedented innovation of rails designed for you to queue properly. And guess what: people do.

The place is so modern, it is possible to imagine that these sandwiches are not made by hand—that they are assembled by robots, swathed in bolts of saran wrap whose articulated parts are daily dipped in vats of glistening, dripping Purell. Lee’s Sandwich Shops ooze the shine of Crisco. They are fluorescently clean, orderly as a German nanny and capacious as a two bedroom condo in central Tokyo. I have never seen anybody push or shove in a Lee’s…and that is saying a lot, given the Vietnamese penchant for the pro forma body check.

The first time I saw a Lee’s Sandwiches, I must admit I felt a swell of pride, a lump in the throat, a premonition of a glass ceiling shattered and the balls to the ankle sensation of an elevator ascending to a stratosphere of unimaginable heights. You know you’ve really made it when American culture has you properly commodified, when your ethnic cuisine becomes mere food-product. It happened to the hamburger. It happened to the pizza. It is happening to the taco. Upon first seeing Lee’s Sandwiches, I suddenly could imagine the possibility of a Vietnamese American president, who would embody that one great American ideal common to fast food and politics: the simultaneous appearance of having flavor but, paradoxically, the possession of nonesuch flavor at all.

Vietnamese sandwiches are, I hear, the rage in Manhattan, so much so, that you can download a guide that will thread you through a walking tour whose destinations are the best starred artisanal offerings of banh mi. Periodically, various articles appear in The New York Times to coach you on such finer points of flaky, baguette sandwich connoisseurship as the sourcing of proteins and the proper sequencing of the herbaceous mélange. Armed with the most current recipes of the Style Section, now hip young yuppies can host their own Vietnamese Sandwich Theme Party, complete with specialty cocktail. Lee’s Sandwiches has become so popular, I have even encountered in my zigzag travels that grand torch song of swooning Asian admiration: the unrepentant knock off.

It was not so long ago that I lusted after the McDonald’s Value Meal and spurned the cloying scent of garlic, ginger and fish sauce. But in a family of ten, the individual cheapness of McDonald’s, multiplied decimally, was still an expensive proposition. I could only get that holy grail of grub when I was truly sick. And when I was infirm, oh boy, I knew my rights. I demanded those cow-grease fries and that deliciously plastic sesame seed bun and the bubbly loveliness of food-colored, high fructose corn syrup, brown as my ever-loving eyes, injected with streams of carbon dioxide effervescence. My God, I lived for the possibility of a high fever. I did not fear getting coughed on. I sought out playmates with runny noses.

I wonder, now, whether Vietnamese children of this new and latest generation will maintain that same bloodlust for all things processed I once carried and still remember, quite strongly, clutching. This is the longing of assimilation: the ache in the pit of the stomach, that febrile sense of something at the tip of one’s tongue. My entire world was built around an appetite born of sodium dreams and the constant sense, saturating my fiber, of foraging in a dense, vegetable forest of chemical scarcity. Now that our own Vietnamese foods are becoming, like the rest of Americana, entirely rubber-ized, I fear that this will make the culinary ordering of a new generation’s universe somehow alien from my own, that I have become a Pleistocene dinosaur of sorts, that this Lee’s Sandwiches is a shuttered screen, dividing an old and new that can never be bridged—a jumping off point to a brave new frontier. No doubt, this will have rippling effects upon the shape of things to come.

—Khanh Ho

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  1. Hey, Khanh!

    Interesting article. I consider myself a foodie, but I’m largely vegetarian in tendencies (and unfortunately, allergic to seafood). I have not yet had one of these sandwiches, but I was planning to try one at a new DC area wine bar on U Street called Dickson Wine Bar. Their FB page is “dicksonwine.”

    They have both a pork belly and ribeye versions of the banh mi and most of the reviews of them have been very positive, although people raise an eyebrow about why a wine bar would serve a vietnamese sandwich and some seem to refuse to believe it could be any good for that reason.

    After your article, I may accelerate my plan to taste one myself!

    After hitting U Street, I’ll have to get out to the DC burbs in VA and MD to try a few more versions. Most of the best authentic foods are outside of DC where the rents are cheaper and the mom and pop places can afford to focus on the food.

  2. The Lee’s sandwich (thit nguoi) is a rip-off. Basically a few so-called Vietnamese cold meats, cheap pate, butter, a few carrots and radishes combined to give us the illusion of a mouthful bite. IT seems cheap but at the end the price is still deceptive due to its poor content. There is something to savor of the fancy prosciutto and french salami over butter and cornichon on real baguette.

  3. I prefer the Vietnamese Ladies in those Mom N Pop sandwich shops, too. There’s more flavor in their sandwiches…but a DRIVE THRU…I would go to Lee’s just to use the DRIVE THRU!

  4. Hi Khanh,
    The Lee’s Sandwiches around the corner from my house in Garden Grove has a drive-thru. Their signature coffee is available in condensed form in bottles you can get (3 for $10) and leave in your freezer. I am not wholly convinced that the convenience is worth the commodification…I’m kind of old school when it comes to things like food and movies. I like to go into the Vietnamese sandwich shops where the ladies behind the counter can do math at lightening fast speed and the cash register is only used to store cash rather than add up your purchases. I also only rent my movies from mom and pop shops…I sure do hope these places stay in business if only to remind us of the importance of human interaction.


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