October 6, 2011 § Leave a comment
4005 Buford Hwy NE
Atlanta, GA 30345
For some reason, I have been having a lot of cravings for bánh mì lately, and I know that as the weather continues to get colder, I’m going to start having my broth obsession again and will start trying to tear Atlanta apart for some phở that rivals the two favorite versions that I enjoy back home in New Orleans. Ironically enough, I found myself on Buford Highway at lunch time in the perfect place to get a taste of both which will serve as a lead-in to my new side venture, The Quest for the Best.
The golden standard around here from my observations for bánh mì is Lee’s Bakery, so it’s only fitting that I start my quest there and branch out into the unknown beyond. If you’re interested in Buford Highway or Vietnamese cuisine around here, I’m certain you’ve heard of it. I’m sure it wouldn’t have taken me two years to get here if it weren’t for one personal issue I have with Buford Highway: when you find a place you really love, it’s nearly impossible to bypass it and go somewhere else in that same shopping center. It feels like a crime when you know that there’s something you love next door and you’re delving into the unknown. I have passed Lee’s Bakery with barely a sideways glance on several occasions and beelined into Cơm simply to devour their outstanding whole grilled fish. It’s one of my favorite things in the area, and it hopefully I can make it back for a review soon. The problem is Cơm claimed that shopping center in my head. Fortunately my resolve today was great, and I had bánh mì on the brain and was determined to give Lee’s a chance. It makes far too much sense to go to Lee’s for lunch anyway as I soon discovered. I think it may be possible for those two places to live harmoniously in the same shopping center and serve completely different cravings for me since they offer primarily different Vietnamese dishes which is the best thing I could ask for.
Half of the fun of a place like Lee’s is that in addition to getting some lunch to go or dine in, you have an interesting variety of baked goods, pastries, gelatinous desserts, drinks, and other goods on display for you to browse and potentially purchase and take home with you. At first it didn’t seem like they had a whole lot of bread out for sale, but when I noticed a pile of garbage bags crammed full of loaves of crusty bread, I realized the quantity they were dealing with.
The next thing I noticed was that Lee’s offers a really good value for bánh mì. The prices range from $2.50 for a to-go order and $3 to dine in. I know this should be somewhat standard pricing, but for some reason, I’ve seen a lot of places selling their bánh mì for $5 or $6. While that’s still reasonable considering the typical quality and filling nature of this type of sandwich, it’s a little annoying when you know that there are potentially better places for half the price. If you’re catering for a group or need 5 sandwiches for any reason, I believe their deal is buy 5 get 1 free for carry out as well which I’ve heard of elsewhere, but is nice to see here.
Be sure to bring cash unless you think you’ll be spending over the $10 credit minimum!
a handy list of the sandwiches they have and their style of garnishes
They also offer some fruit smoothies with the option to add boba. I was going to explore my love for avocado smoothies with boba here as well as I love pairing the decadently creamy, mildly sweet earthiness with the layers of crunch and tangy elements of bánh mì, but I got really distracted by the lunch combo that they had for $6.50 that features a half sandwich and a smaller serving of phở.
a handy list of their combo options
Nice, right? It’s just nice not having to feel like you’re making a painful decision by feeling forced to choose between two things you love knowing that there isn’t nearly enough room in your belly for two. It’s the best of both worlds, and it’s $6.50 if you dine in. But how do these versions measure up in the world of bánh mì and phở?
1/2 bánh mì of the grilled pork variety
I’ve always felt that the quality and texture of the bread is one of the main factors in a good sandwich. Lee’s bakery has a dry crust that isn’t too hard and flakes nicely under pressure. The crust is thin enough that you can enjoy the chewy texture of the softer bread beneath in the same bite. It’s a great standard for quality french bread, and I can see why it’s well regarded.
It’s hard to go wrong with Vietnamese grilled pork in general in my opinion. I’ve yet to have a version that I find unsatisfying even though there are variants that are better than others. Fish sauce, garlic, lemongrass, citrus juices, and whatever else happen to be in the particular marinade used just work so harmoniously with pork. When I tried it on its own, this was about par for the grilled Vietnamese pork course. If I felt like being picky, I’d say that I prefer the meat to be a little tangier and perhaps it was a little bit too salty, but it worked out perfectly fine in the context of this sandwich lending its salty umami and slightly chewy texture into the mix.
loads of fresh garnishes
Lee’s Bakery uses the standard garnishing elements on their sandwich. The mayo/butter combo is nice and adds the right amount of creaminess and tangy butter richness without being overwhelming. The daikon/carrot pickling was standard and fresh and in good quantity. The slices of jalapeno were large but didn’t overwhelm while adding a nice undertone of heat that persisted gently throughout the sandwich. Fresh sprigs of cilantro added another element of clean, herbal flavor to the overall composition.
What really worked for me was the combination of the elements was really spot on. There was just enough of each thing that you generally got to experience a blissful balance of salty, chewy, crispy, tangy, and creamy in every bite. And the price? Who can argue with the price? It’s the kind of sandwich that makes you feel like a fool for ever spending $5 Subway footlong or buying any fast food combo for the same price. You could walk out of here with 2 large delicious sandwiches for the same price with much fresher, more interesting, and dynamic ingredients.
phở tái nạm & garnish plate
the flank steak (nạm) is fortunately hiding underneath which is good since I’m supposed to be reviewing phở tái anyway
This bowl of phở was a nice size as in I didn’t feel like I was gluttonously lamenting the last spoonfuls while clearly not knowing when to quit. Obviously it was smaller than usual given the nature of the combo, but that was fine by me. I wish more places offered smaller bowls of phở so I can happily have some comforting broth so I can satisfy multiple cravings.
The first taste of broth was the most important, and…wow! Color me impressed. One of my two favorites I always went back to was the broth of Hoa Hởng 9 (Nine Roses) just outside of New Orleans because it’s so heavy on the aromatics, and this might have been even moreso. It’s probably not to everyone’s tastes as it could be overwhelming to some, but I happen to like that style a lot. You could smell the spices used to make the broth (especially the star anise) when the bowl was placed in front of you, and the color of the broth leans a bit amber in color. It’s fun and flavorful although perhaps a little more difficult to pick up on the meat flavor of the stock. There’s a nice spattering of fat on the top which I always like to see. The broth itself was also very clean, and there was no residue once I reached the bottom of the bowl.
This wasn’t phở tai as it had flank steak in it, so I’m going to ignore that part of the meat and focus on the fact that the rare steak aspect was sliced thicker than usual and the slices all around felt more ample. Fortunately, it still retained a lot of tenderness, and I was pleased with that component
The noodles were still a little clumped together, but I wonder if this has something to do with the size of the bowl and the lessened quantity of broth. The noodles were still nice and soft and happily flicked broth on their journey into my mouth as brothy noodles like to do.
The garnishes in the soup were simple and included green onions, thinly sliced white onions, and cilantro. The garnishes on the side were ample and fresh and consisted of a wedge of lime, rolls of culantro, very fresh and crisp bean sprouts, and thai basil. The basil did show some signs of light bruising and spots, but it didn’t affect the flavor or texture at all. After assessing and enjoying the broth on its own for a while, I dug into the garnishes and dripped some sriracha on the surface. The combination worked really well because the broth was so aromatic on its own that it still managed to shine through in the right amounts under a large quantity of additional toppings. I was especially pleased with how well the bean sprouts held onto their watery crisp in the broth too. Fresh garnishes can really help a phở, and in this case, it pushed it over the edge for me.
I was really pleased with my first visit to Lee’s Bakery, and I can say that it managed to live up to the hype that it’s received. As I’ve mentioned several times, the prices are great, and the wait was short around 1pm on a weekday. If I lived closer, I’d be in there very frequently. For now, as the first entry in the Quest for the Best, it’s going to set the standard for the other bánh mì and phở from here on out. I’m curious to see how others hold up.
My only real complaint is that a few hours later, I did feel as if I had consumed too much salt from lunch. I’m wondering if the broth had cooked down a lot intensifying its flavor and salt level. It tasted good at the time for sure, but the salt content was likely higher than the already salty norm. It’s worth noting at the very least.
Something else I discovered while I was there was that they serve some elusive vegan phở with tofu and vegetables. I’ve heard of this sort of thing, but I’ve yet to encounter it. I’m extremely curious as to how well the aromatics work without a good meat based stock. Expect a vegetarian perspective on this experiment.