Legit Banh Mi Lands on Top Floor of 808 Center in Honolulu
Le’s Banh Mi is a classy new Vietnamese bakery with perfect baguettes and sandwiches.
In Hawai‘i, you don’t just stumble upon a banh mi shop anymore. The once ubiquitous neighborhood Ba-Le are disappearing one by one. The independents like No Name Barbecue Sandwich and Bella Banh Mi are too few and far between. Similar could be said about businesses on the top floor of the 808 Center on Sheridan Street behind Walmart: You really have to be there to notice anything new. Or you could be surfing the web while under the influence of hunger, discover a new banh mi shop just opened and immediately drive there.
In late February, Chi Lam and her husband Minh Tuan Le set up shop in the surprisingly spacious suite between Sushi Murayama and SalonKit. The decor at Le’s Banh Mi is minimalist but directs your attention to a wall with a handwritten menu listing banh mi sandwiches and beverages. At the register, there’s a basket of French baguettes ($3) and plain banh mi ($1.50). I’m thinking, where are all the plastic containers of spring rolls, rice cakes, buns and vermicelli?
The air is heavy and warm; the aroma of bread draws me in further. The darkened bakery is partially obscured but you can see movement in the back. I order a roast pork banh mi combo with an iced tea ($11) and Lam goes to work, slicing up and toasting one of her fresh banh mi before stuffing it with ingredients. Wanting to observe more, I linger in the heat of the store, but not too long in my aloha shirt and slacks. Outside, it’s much cooler on the breezy balcony overlooking Choi’s Garden Korean Restaurant across the street.
I take my seat and moments later Lam delivers my banh mi sandwich, wrapped in foil and a paper bag like a can of juice going on a field trip. Unwrapping it, tingles run down my spine and goosebumps rise on my arms. This is going to be a great banh mi, my sixth sense tells me. The sight of it alone is thrilling.
Immediately the details pop: a crunchy crust with an airy, soft center, curly-cue green onions, seeded jalapeños, morsels of roast pork mixed with bits of fat and crackly skin. Tucking in, I can’t help but say “woooooow” after the first bite. And the second and third. Even the pickled carrots and daikon are just sweet enough to elevate the porky bits. I can’t help myself enough and finish my sandwich in minutes.
It is indeed so good, I go back the next day to try Lam’s Sai Gon Special banh mi ($10.50). You might refer to this one as dac biet or special, because it has all the fixin’s: cha lua steamed pork roll, ham, char siu, house-made pate and mayo, cucumbers, jalapeño, pickles and cilantro. And while it is special, the roast pork blows it out of the water. I’ve yet to try the lemongrass tofu or mushroom banh mi, but it’s nice to know the Les have vegetarian options.
Lam learned to bake at home about two years ago and her hobby grew into an obsession. She continued her home baking with a cottage license for family and friends until she and her husband decided to go all-in on the bakery we see today. Now they bake upwards of 400 loaves a day and deliver most of them to shops in Chinatown. The rest are saved for Le’s Banh Mi, for which Lam also makes bamboo charcoal and ube banh mi baguettes on Wednesdays.
I pick up a couple of plain banh mi rolls to take home to eat with pats of cold Kerrygold butter. Lam recommends I keep them in the freezer for up to a few weeks and bake them in the toaster oven. What she doesn’t know is that I end up eating both of them that night for dinner. I like bread, but these little loaves are more like drugs.
Next time I’ll try to practice a little more self-control, but I’m not making any promises, especially under the influence of hunger.
Open Mon day from 7 to 11 a.m. and Tuesday to Sunday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., 808 Sheridan St. Suite 306B, (808) 227-3066, @les_banhmi