July 14, 2016
Tucked away inside a most unassuming shopping center at the intersection of Sugar Creek and N. Tryon St, a simple neon sign reads “Banh Mi Sandwiches.”
To find this glowing sign, one must venture into the Asian Corner Mall, which was once a bustling hub for international fare, and now still houses several Asian markets and restaurants.
The sign belongs to Le’s Sandwiches & Cafe, or perhaps more appropriately, to Le Nguyen, who started this restaurant herself in 1996 in a different location on Central Ave. She eventually sold the shop to spend more time at home for a few years and reopened with a small cart at the Overseas Food Market on South Blvd. Once enough money was saved, the shop opened in its current location in 2004. Though her husband, Minh, and son, Tuan, help her run the business, it is Le whose family recipes comprise the menu, and has built a stellar reputation for the restaurant.
“Bành mí has been well received in Charlotte,” says Tuan. “It has really become sort of a ‘food city’ over the last few years; people are experimenting. A lot of the cooking shows are also really exposing people to different cultural eats, and I think, people are more willing than ever to taste new foods. Also, being close to NoDa, which is a more adventurous area, helps because they are big supporters of our food.”
We got a chance to visit the sandwich shop, and upon entering, we were met with genuine kindness and generosity. They were excited for us to be there and eager to share all that they offered– which was much more than expected.
To start, Tuan fed entire sugarcane shoots into a unique juicing machine. The shoots came out flattened on the other side and a cup filled with the pure sugarcane juice that was inside. To finish, several orange slices were placed between the flattened shoots and run back through the juicer to add citrus to the drink. It was an experience to watch, but even more of an experience to drink. It’s good, really, really, good. So good that the world spun a little slower on its axis upon first sip. The drink was mildly sweet, satisfying, fresh, and completely unexpected.
And then there was the coffee. For coffee lovers who prefer their coffee strong, Vietnamese coffee is your drink. This secret blend is highly concentrated so it is traditionally mixed with sweetened condensed milk. To prepare, finely ground coffee is pressed into a single serve Vietnamese drip filter and water is slowly poured over until the attached cup fills with coffee. The flavor is uniquely strong without being bitter. For those that face the daily afternoon lull, this is what you’ve been waiting for.
Wait. Isn’t this a bành mí restaurant? Yes, and I assure you we’ll get to that, but each of these drinks deserve to be highlighted and we’ve got one more. Bubble tea (boba) has gained recognition and popularity in recent years and for good reason. The “tea” portion comes in a wide variety of flavors that each pair uniquely with tapioca “bubbles” or “pearls” that line the bottom. Though Le’s offers several types, their most popular is a frozen avocado, which is just that, blended together with a bit of milk and sugar. This creamy concoction is sweetly satisfying and quite filling.
Okay, and now time for the bành mí. Bành mí evolved from the French colonization of Vietnam, and bread didn’t really exist there until the introduction of the French baguette. Additionally, the butter used on bành mí is referred to in Vietnamese as Bo’ (BUH) which is a loanword from the French, beurre for butter. The traditional Bành mí consists of Vietnamese ham, sausage, head cheese, Jambon (French cured ham), pate, mayo, pickled carrots and daikons, fresh jalapeño and cilantro. At Le’s, most all of the ingredients are made from scratch, aside from the cold cuts, the bread is made fresh daily, and they are well known for their secret (and delicious) Bo’.
Of the twelve or so offerings, we sampled four including #6, Grilled Pork, which is their most popular, and a #7, Special Combination Sandwich, which includes several meats. We also tried a #6 + #4, which is a crowd favorite and consists of a #6 plus pork skins. For those who are meat-averse, they also offer a vegetarian option that includes a delicious, spicy tofu. All four, though they varied slightly in flavor and texture, were a perfect balance of savory meat and bread, fresh carrot, daikon, jalapeño, and bright cilantro.
So whats in store for the future of Le’s? “Basically my parents are retiring and so I quit my job about a year and a half ago where I was doing design work for International Paper. It’s a family business and I kinda want to see if I can run it. I felt that if we sold it it would have been a waste of my parents time and all that they accomplished in bringing this food to Charlotte,” says Tuan.
With his design background, Tuan has big plans for how he will market the business moving forward. “We’ve never had a look before– until now,” he said referring to the shop’s new logo and T-shirts designed by local branding and advertising agency, Centerfold.
Even without a “look,” Le’s bành mí’s have garnered a loyal following. Reviewers across the board commend the shop for its scrumptious fresh food and excellent service. They are a true testament of the success that can come from honest hard work, meticulous attention to detail, and damn good sandwiches.
Le’s Sandwiches & Cafe
4520 N Tryon St. #41
Charlotte, NC 28213
Phone: (704) 921-7498
Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
*Closed on Wednesdays