Clearly, I have picked the worst possible time to walk into this Vietnamese bakery cafe on Buford Highway. Uncleared dishes are piled high on tables in the plain, dim, tile-floor dining room. A few remaining customers slurp noodle soups, pick at pineapple-stuffed croissants and drink cans of Diet Coke.
I am not here for any of that. I just want one of the house specialty banh mi — a submarine sandwich that usually holds a choice of grilled meats or cold cuts, crunchy marinated vegetables and honking slices of hot, hot jalapeno. However, Lee’s is one of the few places in town to serve a version with scrambled eggs rather than meat, and it is one of my favorite facefuls of food anywhere. It may be the perfect egg sandwich, and it usually takes them a quick minute to make it.
The problem, on this day, is the customers ahead of me waiting for huge orders. One guy carts away at least 30 banh mi; another waits for an order so large that the staff is busy packing sandwiches by the score in cardboard boxes.
But I stay because my mind is already happy with egg-sandwich anticipation.
I stand by the counter and watch the hurried staff of three slice the loaves; slather them with mayo; fill them with slivers of barbecued pork (the most popular garnish) from a bucket; shower them with veggies, nuoc cham sauce and salt; wrap them in butcher paper and secure the paper with rubber bands.
As I stand there, I think about all the egg sandwiches I have loved. I make a good, albeit, plain one. I saute the egg in olive oil, break the yolk and flip it in short order before setting it on whole wheat toast. The way I cook it, the yolk is still a little runny, but spread thin so you get a little gush with each bite. When I’m really on my A-game, I can also achieve a crisp, lacy ruffle around the perimeter of the white without toughening it.
I also remember eating an egg sandwich from Zuni Cafe in San Francisco that somehow felt like a momentous benchmark in my career as an obsessive snarfer. All I remember now is that it involved a lettuce leaf and gushed with ripe avocado, and that the bread was crusty and sour with natural fermentation. It made me realize that egg sandwiches don’t need the automatic additions of cheese and bacon to shine. In fact, once you introduce bacon, the egg has no choice but to ride shotgun. You have a bacon sandwich.
I stand by the counter at Lee’s Bakery and watch, mesmerized, as banh mi after banh mi announces its arrival on Earth with the snap of a rubber band. I have already been waiting 20 minutes, not 10.
The sandwiches here are particularly good because of the bread, which Lee’s supplies to Vietnamese restaurants throughout the city. Thanks to the addition of a little rice flour, these loaves emerge from the oven with thin but super-crackly crusts and a marshmallow-soft crumb. Imagine the whitest, mildest bread encased in the thinnest, noisiest crust (it’s like the Klondike bar of baked goods), and you have the Lee’s Bakery loaf.
It is the ideal vehicle for an egg sandwich — my egg sandwich — which, lo and behold, is ready! My beautiful, bodacious $2.50 egg sandwich, which is warm in my hands.
I pay, and go, and then, of course, commit the ultimate foodie-loser sin. I get into my car and sit in the parking lot and eat my sandwich.
Imagine, if you will, the bread I just described piled with soft, fluffy and unseasoned scrambled eggs. On top of it sits a long cucumber spear, a good 10 stalks of cilantro, marinated carrots and daikon radish, and those fat slices of hot pepper.
You’d think all this stuff would overpower those poor, anodyne eggs, right? Well, you’d be wrong. What, in fact, happens is this: Your mouth responds to the incredible overstimulation of crunch and spice like a 5-year-old set loose in a Chuck E. Cheese playground. But, then, something soothing and melodious (mom’s voice?) cuts through the cacophony. “Are you having fun?” it asks.
Yes! It is so much fun — and so messy! And, as mild as it is, that egg is a flavor your palate will never, ever mistake.
Which is why, I think, Lee’s Bakery makes the ultimate egg sandwich. Mine is good, Zuni Cafe’s is better, but none holds a candle to Lee’s.
That wait is 20 minutes well spent.