or those who work downtown, Le’s tiny corner of Court Street is likely a familiar lunchtime destination. Its unassuming façade and simple décor don’t exactly scream at you from the street, but those who have been there before understand the reason for the steady stream of people through the eatery’s doors. The food, made fresh every day by husband and wife Hai and Le Bui, is authentic, addicting and so delicious.
Since I don’t work downtown, I fight the traffic and construction every so often to get my Le’s fix. (Le’s — formerly known as Le’s Café — moved from its spot in the main branch of the public library downtown to Court Street in 2012.) Vietnamese food, rich with French influence, has the unique ability to satisfy all sorts of cravings. The menu is simple yet extensive, offering both traditional Vietnamese dishes as well as those that cater to less adventurous palates. And the price? Let’s just say it is hard to find a better lunch for less than $6 anywhere else.
My go-to is and always will be the Banh Mi, a traditional Vietnamese sandwich complete with your choice of chicken, beef, pork, teriyaki or Dac Biet (a hearty combination of pork and pâté), topped with pickled carrot, onion, cilantro, jalapeño and just the right amount of mayonnaise. While the internal ingredients are bright, fresh and well seasoned, it is the bread — oh, this bread — that keeps bringing me back.
During my last visit, I asked Le (you can’t miss her, she’s always smiling) where they source their bread. She started to point toward some mystery place, using words like “special” and “deliver,” but before she could say much more, her daughter, who was serving up a piping hot bowl of Pho, stopped her in her tracks. “We can’t tell you,” she said politely, shaking her head. “Sorry.” Le shrugged and grinned back at me, and I hardly minded that I might never find out.
Le’s Banh Mi is served on six inches of a French baguette that puts all other baguettes to shame. The outside is crisp but not crumbly; it perfectly complements the fluffy, chewy inside. The bread stands up to the sandwich’s ingredients while still allowing them to shine through. Every crunchy bite of my pork Banh Mi ($4) melded the cilantro, carrot and barbecue pork together in a delicious way that made lunch conversation a second priority.
Another enjoyable option is Bún ($5.75), a traditional cold dish that combines vermicelli noodles, grilled meat, pickled vegetables, bean sprouts, crushed peanuts and fresh herbs like cilantro and basil to create a kind of noodle salad. The generous portion is topped with sliced hunks of egg roll and a delectable fish sauce, poured over the top like a dressing. I recommend a squirt or two of Sriracha and/or hoisin sauce (both sitting on the tables, ready to use). The egg roll pieces and bean sprouts add crunch; the noodles and sauces provide the perfect backdrop for the swirl of unique flavors.
The two dishes described are my personal favorites, but the one you will most often find in front of Le’s customers is the Pho ($5.50 for a regular; $6 for a large). Le’s take features a heaping serving of Vietnamese broth, rice noodles, meat, vegetables (fresh jalapeño and bean sprouts are standard) and herbs. Restaurant regulars lap up this stuff like kittens, and its aroma fills the tiny bistro with an intoxicating scent. The flavors in the beef broth are so complex that it takes spoonful after spoonful to identify each one. Some diners will catch the ginger and the onion, while others taste a hint of cinnamon, clove or cardamom. The broth is salty, but not too salty, and even a little sweet. The jalapeño lends subtle spice while the crunchy bean sprouts add texture. I do not recommend taking it to go (Le’s daughter says it does not travel well, and she’s right), but rather have it served to you hot and steaming with all of the little extras — lime, basil, cilantro, extra sprouts — as you people watch.
Hai and Le make their egg rolls, spring rolls and crab rangoons every day, so those are also worth a try. Even though the setting is casual, the service is warm, sincere and accommodating. The Bui family knows exactly what they’re doing, and you taste it with every single bite. I may never discover the true heritage of that bread, but I’m hoping I will be able find it here, served up with a smile from Le herself, for years to come.
Go: 3 E. Court St., Downtown
Internet: Searchable on Facebook
Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday