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The Secret to the Perfect Banh Mi, And More: A Chat with the Owner of Lee’s Bakery

Buford Highway is full of gems, both hidden and famous.

Nowhere else in Georgia can you find such a rich and diverse convergence of authentic ethnic cuisines. In any random shopping center, you may find a Mexican taqueria, a Korean barbecue joint, and a Cantonese dim sum hub, and it would hardly be an exception.

Of all of these beloved local favorites, though, there is one that rises above the rest and holds its own place in the hearts of hungry Atlantans.

That place is Lee’s Bakery, and I had the opportunity to speak with its owner about what goes into being the city’s premier Vietnamese restaurant.

Photo Credit: On the Grid

The Origins of Lee’s Bakery

Lucy Le owning a restaurant called Lee’s Bakery is no typo. Nor is it an Americanized spelling of her name.

It actually stems from a simple coincidence.

Mrs. Le is originally from Vietnam and spent a decade in Sacramento, CA before moving to Atlanta. Her husband had over a decade of bakery experience and wanted to bring his fantastic bread down south, so they bought a Vietnamese restaurant already called Lee’s Bakery, keeping its cuisine and its name…even with the extra “E”. 

Vietnamese Cuisine

So what exactly is Vietnamese food? 

Vietnamese recipes commonly use lemongrass, ginger, mint, bird’s eye chili, Thai basil leaves, and fish sauce. They’re typically fresh and bright, especially compared to American food; yet despite these traits, they’re brimming with flavor and deeply aromatic. Some of the most popular Vietnamese dishes include:

Photo Credit: Lee’s Bakery

Gỏi cuốn, or fresh spring rolls in rice paper,

Soups, like Phở (beef broth) and Hủ Tiếu (pork broth),

Banh mi sandwiches (a short baguette split in half and frequently topped with grilled pork, cilantro, cucumber, pickled veggies, and mayo) 

(Note: “banh mi” actually refers to the bread itself, not the sandwich. Mrs. Le laughs, “When people say they want the banh mi, we don’t know what kind of sandwich they want!”)

Vietnamese food is already tremendously tasty, but Lee’s Bakery takes it to the next level. Mrs. Le knows that consistency is the key to their success. She explains, “Even though we’ve been open for years, the quality of the food is still the same.”

When you’re in an area as loaded with fantastic restaurants as Buford Highway, you can’t cut corners anywhere. 

Exploding Onto the Scene

Buford Highway is the melting pot of Atlanta, with thousands of immigrant-owned restaurants, especially Korean, Mexican, Chinese, and Vietnamese, but countless others can be found as well: Bangladeshi, Somali, and Ethiopian, to name a few. 

Mrs. Le loves the diversity of the area and sees it as an asset to all the business owners. She makes it a point to patronize the neighboring restaurants, especially the other Asian spots. And it’s a two-way street. She gushes, “we love to serve all the people.” 

The Buford Highway area has exploded since she took over Lee’s Bakery. I asked how she has seen it develop, and the biggest difference she notes is the increased diversity in their customer base. When they first bought the restaurant, she estimates, “maybe 60-70% of the customers were Vietnamese.” Very few Americans, or anybody outside of the local Vietnamese community, ate there. Then their following began to grow. Fifteen years later, Lee’s Bakery is one of the most beloved restaurants in Atlanta.

There’s no singular reason why Lee’s has built such a strong reputation besides the obvious…the food is unbelievable, especially that banh mi sandwich. Those sandwiches have become the stuff of legend. The New York Times Magazine named it one of the best banh mi in America. AJC writer John Kessler chronicled his experience waiting for and then savoring an egg sandwich. Countless local and national publications have sung its praises (including the one you’re reading…how meta!), and it only gets more popular each year. 

Mrs. Le also guesses that the exceptional value of their “Buy 5, Get 1 Free” to-go special has contributed to this popularity. This allows even more people to try the sandwich of their choosing for less than $6 a pop. Talk about a steal!

The Food at Lee’s Bakery

With a restaurant that has a downright famous banh mi sandwich, I had to ask Mrs. Le… what’s your secret? 

“The freshness of the bread,” she answers. “We make it every day. We don’t use the old bread, even when we run out.” And the bread has a mighty supporting cast. “That, combined with the daikon, cucumbers, and mayo,” she concludes, makes it truly remarkable.

And who am I to disagree? The bread itself is undeniably fresh, with a perfect crunchy texture. The grilled BBQ pork (the bestseller) is a succulent mix of salty and sweet, and every topping brings a new flavor to the table: the tangy cilantro, the crisp cucumber, the sweet and sour pickled veggies, the spicy jalapeno, and the soothing mayo all combine to elevate the sandwich to something special.

A cross-section of beauty

I asked Mrs. Le the same question about the secret to making phenomenal pho, which is praised nearly as much as the sandwiches. For creating their balanced and flavorful beef soup, patience is a virtue because it can take up to 12 hours to cook. She explains, “We do it overnight […] that way the stock gets sweet.” Like everything else they make at Lee’s Bakery, consistency is the not-so-secret weapon.

The banh mi and pho may be the headliners, but there’s a stacked roster of other delectable dishes you can enjoy at Lee’s Bakery. 

Mrs. Le recommends, above all else, getting what she calls “the perfect combo,” where you get your choice of noodle soup and a half or full sandwich (the full is only $2.25 more!) Who doesn’t love a little bit of everything? She tends to get it with the seafood soup (“but just the fish, not the squid”) and the fish sandwich (banh mi topped with a fish cake and the usual accouterments). 

Lee's Bakery - Banh Mi & Pho Combo
Banh Mi & Pho Combo

For somebody who has never been to Lee’s before, Mrs. Le recommends the combo with the pork banh mi and beef noodle soup (pho). For vegetarians, “I recommend the vegan soup with the egg sandwich.” 

If you want to venture outside the soup and sandwich sphere, you have options. When I asked about a less popular dish on the menu that everyone should try, without a beat, she suggested the lemongrass chicken vermicelli, or the Bún Gà Xào Sả: noodles with lemongrass chicken, pickled carrots and daikon, fresh-cut veggies, and crushed peanuts. If you lean vegetarian, the lemongrass tofu is a strong substitute.

Lemongrass chicken vermicelli

And what’s a delicious meal without something equally delightful to wash it all down with?

If you were to look up “refreshing” in the dictionary, you might find a picture of their smoothies with boba. They’re available in avocado, mango, strawberry, mocha, honeydew, and passionfruit so there’s something for every palate. And drinking boba pearls is very fun, giving you a little something to chew on while you sip. 

For a caffeine kick, get Lê Coffee, fresh Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk, served either hot or cold. It’s subtly sweet and creamy, putting any Starbucks concoction to shame.

Lê Coffee

Places like Lee’s Bakery are why Atlanta is the greatest food city in the country (sit down, NYC!)

Communities thrive when smaller, immigrant-owned businesses are supported and celebrated. Not only is it fulfilling as a customer to patronize a local restaurant, but the experience speaks for itself: the food is just unlike anything you can get anywhere else. When you step into a restaurant on Buford Highway, it’s hard not to get sentimental that places like this can exist, pulled up by the bootstraps of passion and hard work and the food that keeps you coming back for more.

Going to Lee’s Bakery is the easiest decision you’ll make. Deciding what to get may be the toughest.

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