Fast food’s new face

Lee’s Sandwiches

5950 Florin Rd.
Sacramento, CA 95823

(916) 392-7188

Not long ago in these pages I said that by rights banh mi ought to be the next big fast-food trend. Now, what should appear in Sacramento but two branches of the banh mi-based franchise Lee’s Sandwiches, which offers the Vietnamese sandwiches along with a riot of other Western and Asian items, from tuna-salad sandwiches (on croissants or baguettes) to steamed pork buns, from spring rolls to potato chips, from durian shakes to Häagen-Dazs ice-cream bars. There’s something for everyone in these spacious temples to food convenience, but the question is whether it’s really any different than the average fast-food chain.

Well, yes and no. There’s a lot here that’s reminiscent of any fast-food chain, such as the gleaming tile floors, the counter ordering, the efficiency, and the round neon sign emblazoned “HOT” that’s lit up to tout fresh-from-the-oven baguettes—a straight-up rip-off of the Krispy Kreme motif. But there’s also quite a lot that you never would find in any Mickey D’s: Those hot baguettes are crusty without and nicely textured within, you can buy Vietnamese coffee by the half-gallon (just $22!) and fresh spring rolls. Then there are the cups of tapioca-based desserts and plastic-covered foam trays of at least five colors of rice, from pea green to traffic-cone orange.

There’s also the obelisk-like fountain that adorns the center of the Florin Road branch of Lee’s, the newer and larger of the two local franchises. (The other is on Power Inn Road.) The big black fountain looks peculiarly like that weird pyramid with the floating eye on the back of the dollar bill. Perhaps it’s symbolic of the place’s low prices, one of the best things that puts the banh mi in the fast-food camp. A hearty 10-inch sandwich is less than $3, and that includes a big helping of meat, crunchy carrot and daikon pickles, lip-burning slices of jalapeño, cilantro, and mayo. Supersizing is available here, just like any franchise: You can add extra meat for 50 cents, which is worthwhile if you’re the hungry type. (And that half gallon of coffee is nothing if not supersized.)

The sandwiches are pretty good, but I’ve had better, particularly when it comes to the meat. I was disappointed in the thit nuong (grilled pork). This style of pork typically is caramelized and savory with a sweet edge, grilled until dark and almost charred. But here there was no evidence of grilling, and the meat’s fatty saltiness was overwhelming. It tasted more like cheap ham or roast pork with a salty marinade than like grilled pork. At these prices you obviously can’t expect top-quality meat, but I’d pay a quarter more not to have bony or cartilaginous bits in my sandwich. The meatballs (which are not really balls but flattened bunches of seasoned ground pork, studded peculiarly with overcooked peas) were better, with plenty of juicy flavor and peppery nuances.

A croissant sandwich convinced me that banh mi are the way to go, even if there are a few flaws to the latter. Not that there’s anything terribly wrong with the sweet, fluffy (not flaky) croissants, but turkey and American cheese are a dull counterpoint to the also-unenticing pastry. The baguettes have a lot more personality, even if they are white bread.

There are plenty of appetizers around, too. Mini egg rolls had a strong shrimpy flavor with the pork, but the rice-paper wrappers, which looked nicely blistered and crisp, had wilted into greasy chewiness under the heat lamps. I preferred the fresh spring rolls, well preserved under plastic wrap. I had a trio that included meatballs, shrimp and red barbecued pork, and a dried tofu and veggie roll.

The drinks at Lee’s are a lot of fun, from the super-strong coffee with condensed milk (the iced stuff is great) to the shakes and other drinks with pearls. We tried a pineapple shake, which had a chemical note to its sweetness but was a nice treat in its way, and perhaps a better bet than the desserts, which have an otherworldly quality. The tapioca and banana pudding I tried looked more approachable than the green jelly desserts or some of the sloshy, unidentifiable cups (they’re not labeled), but it had a weird saltiness about it.

Lee’s is determinedly both Asian and American. The Western-style sandwiches may be called “European,” but I defy you to find a French café serving pastrami and American cheese on a baguette. The red, white, and blue color scheme, too, waves the Stars and Stripes. It’s a measure of the mix of cultures in the restaurant—and, these days, in Sacramento—that you can choose to get tapioca pearls or whipped cream, or both, on your drink.

The banh mi may not be perfect, but there’s a lot to like here, and a lot to simply look at, and these franchises are well worth a visit. You’re guaranteed to find something you like (even if it’s only that tub of Häagen-Dazs)—and likely to find something you’re not familiar with, too.