Turning Vietnamese, Pt. II: Le’s Sandwiches & Cafe
At the end of November I met Nikki Wolfe from Yelp Charlotte. Given we both love to eat and love to write about eating, we got along well. About halfway through the evening our conversation turned to restaurants we enjoy around town. I wanted to know about some of the lesser known spots she’s visited in Charlotte- those places that don’t advertise or are easily overlooked without giving another glance. We’d previously been discussing our love for pho noodle soup spots on South Blvd and Nikki said if I liked Vietnamese food I needed to try Le’s Sandwiches and Cafe on the northside of town.
You’ll love it, she assured me- just watch out for the potholes in the parking lot. “It seriously looks like they’ve been blowing up bombs out there.”
I think Vietnamese food is fantastic but must admit I’d never eaten the popular banh mi sandwiches. So the prospect of trying a new dish from one of my favorite schools of cooking didn’t require much more to stir curiosity into action. Doing a little research online I saw banh mi dominates the menu at Le’s and most Yelpers were throwing out five star ratings and consistent reviews. The all-consuming mob is fickle and five star ratings don’t come easy when everyone is a critic with an online platform. Along with Nikki’s recommendation, all the inspired blurbs about warm, golden baguettes lined with herbs and fresh, pickled vegetables and topped with savory, thin-sliced pork was enough encouragement for me to get on the road.
The location is certainly dicey as aforementioned. Le’s is invisible from Sugar Creek and North Tryon and located in a long neglected Asian shopping mall with a parking lot that is indeed cratered up like Sarajevo in the 90’s. You’ll wonder if you’re in the right spot. Just asking yourself that question confirms you’ve come to the place.
The interior of the mall reminded me of a post-apocalyptic hideout from a horror flick. Duck carcasses hung brown and crispy in the window of the almost vacant Hong Kong BBQ. A guy in a black apron sauntered out of there over to a lawn chair beside a tree starved for deep soil and sunlight. He plopped right down and lit a cigarette in the middle of the mall. I had to stop myself from gawking. A couple spaces down the row, an Asian market had gigantic bags of rice stacked almost to the ceiling. Stores without occupants were sealed like tombs and shrouded with old Vietnamese expat newspapers and grit. Other vacant stores seemed to be occupied by ghosts and spirits as indicated by fresh offerings of food and incense at makeshift shrines. I almost expected to find a section with powdered rhino horn amidst the gallons of acetone and stacks of gauze pads at the salon supply store. They probably print money at that place given all the nail salons polishing feet around Charlotte. It felt as if I teleported overseas into a shopping mall just after an extinction level event. The unfamiliar setting had my hackles up and primed my senses which made it a little easier to follow the peppery perfume trail of savory meat, spices, and herbs that lingered in the the wide open halls along the way to Le’s.
Having never eaten banh mi, I looked up at the sandwich boards overhead in the smal shop and ordered the grilled pork one from the man at the counter. A woman beside him sliced open a long loaf of bread and went about packing it with whatever goodness that came with my order. When the total came to $3.50, I ordered another and a Coke for good measure. Since the other patrons were already seated with their food, my sandwiches came wrapped and warm in about three minutes.
The bread for banh mi reminds me of your usual baguette but with a bit smoother crust and softer interior. I can’t help but wonder if this is a refinement from the influence of French cusine brought during the Gallic occupation of Vietnam. The #6 comes stuffed with thin slices of grilled pork in a sweet marinade underneath a layer of long thin shoestring strips of pickled carrots and onions, jalapeño slices, and a handful or two of cilantro. The cooling effect of the cilantro helps temper the slow burn of spice radiating from the pickled veggies and peppers. The assortment of textures and flavors stimulating the senses is one of the hallmarks of Vietnamese cuisine and banh mi follows suit with the crunch from the crusty bread and pickled veggies playing off the tender pork and distinct herbal, metallic taste of cilantro.
The smell of the sandwich urged me to stop and eat it on the way to the car but I resisted temptation only to then find myself about halfway through one sandwich by the time I navigated the potholes and pulled out onto North Tryon. The other sandwich was gone before I reached my exit on the Billy Graham Parkway. I’m certainly no expert on banh mi but I know what my brain tells me what is tasty and there was no embellishment in regards to all the five star reviews for Le’s. The way I see it, food is kind of like sex in the sense you don’t need to be a seasoned expert to know it is good. My only regret is not trying two different types of banh mi but this just means I’ll be back to try my sandwich with added pate and then branch out from there.
Go make your way to Le’s. Your wallet and belly will be happy.
Do you know of any other restaurants off the beaten path we should feature?
What else should I eat to help round out my exposure to Vietnamese cuisine?
Sound off in the comments section below.