In this economy, everyone is looking to cut back on expenses especially on eating out. But if you want to save money but not give up quality, check out Valley Blvd. Starting at Alhambra and heading east, you’ll find some of the finest bargain meals to be had in the entire city. One of the best combinations of quality and price is the Banh Mi, or Vietnamese sandwich. The boulevard is lined with Vietnamese offering all kinds of delicacies. There are dozens of bakeries and sandwich shops serving Banh Mi. But there’s a stretch of Valley in Rosemead where two of the most well known purveyors of this Vietnamese classic are just a few blocks apart from each other; Lee’s Sandwiches and Mr. Baguette.
I start at Lee’s Sandwiches. It’s not a Mom and Pop operation as evidenced by the slickly constructed exterior. It has its own parking lot and a drive through so getting in and out is a snap. From the outside you’d think it was a KFC or Boston Market. Lee’s isn’t that huge but it is a multi state franchise with over 30 locations.
Inside it looks just like any other major chain fast food joint. But look closer at the menu and you’ll find durian ice cream, red bean smoothies, and mini pork pate chaud. It’s the American Fast Food model applied to Southeast Asian food.
For my Banh Mi I order the Cured Pork and Pork Roll. It’s a hearty 10 inch sandwich cut into two pieces. The meats are sliced deli thin. The cured pork is red almost like Chinese char sui and has a slight ham flavor. The almost white pork roll reminds me a little bit of good bologna sausage but made with pork. The sandwich is topped with pickled carrot and daikon, the sliced jalapeno that gives it a kick and the cilantro tops it all off. It costs just $2.75. It has the national chain sandwich places beat by a mile in both cost and taste. What’s there to brag about in a $5 foot long?
While Lee’s Sandwiches may be a superior fast food chain my next stop, Mr. Baguette, was in a whole different league. I gladly call it fine dining off paper plates and plastic trays. Mr. Baguette has only three locations but you should find the one closest to you and make it a regular stop. The one in Rosemead is off a fairly quiet street so if the parking lot is crowded you can find street parking easy enough.
From its name you know Mr. Baguette prides itself on one thing in particular. They offer their house made baguettes with everything from clam chowder to sandwiches to just plain.
They also offer the traditional Vietnamese meats, also house made. It’s a tempting display. But I’ve already had a cold Banh Mi, I decide to go for something warmer and order the grilled pork sandwich.
I get a foot long baguette filled with grilled pork for $3.75 (I didn’t have a tape measure but it sure looked like a foot.) The pickled vegetables and sliced jalapenos came separately in a plastic baggie.
It was I was feeling pretty full from Lee’s and I considered eating only half and taking the rest home with me. That plan changed as soon as I bit into it. One taste and I knew I was going to finish the whole thing right there. The first thing that got me was the crunch of the crust. It crackled beautifully every time it met my teeth. But it wasn’t too hard. There was the “broken glass” effect you sometimes get with really hard (or stale) crust. After the crunch it was tender inside. It held the meat and vegetables inside but wasn’t too tough or chewy, perfect sandwich bread. This may be the first time I ate a sandwich and was so thoroughly taken with the bread, but it was almost like a magic trick. You wondered how they could do it. Not the filling was any slouch. The pork was juicy with salty glaze and a little grilled smokiness, the pickled vegetables provided the tang, and the jalapenos gave it just the right amount of punch. My only regret was that I only had room for one sandwich. I have to go back and try all the others. I can’t imagine shelling out $5 any more for a sandwich served in what amounts to an oversized hot dog roll.
Great food for under $5? It is there to be had if you’re on the right street.
Lee’s Sandwiches (Rosemead)
8779 E. Valley Blvd.
Rosemead CA 91770
Price Range: Between $2.75 and $2.95 for most sandwiches
Mr. Baguette (Rosemead)
8702 E Valley Blvd.
Rosemead CA 91770
Price Range: Between $3.75 and $5.50 for most sandwiches