It's approaching the lunch hour and business folk in formal wear as well as Mexican construction laborers stand in line to order French baguette subs at a Vietnamese cafe. One of the Asian owners struggles to speak Spanglish while her younger co-worker blends tropical fruit smoothies and bops to hip-hop tunes playing in the background. At Lee's Bakery, there is often this sort of eclectic ethnic mix that proves the universal language of food sometimes transcends cultural conflict.
Staff of life: Lee's, a family-owned and -operated bakery and onsite eatery, opened about five years ago in a nonchalant Buford Highway shopping strip. It has a steady following for its fresh French bread, Asian sweets and inexpensive entrees. People dive in just to hit the overflowing bin of baguettes, filling bag-loads full of the four-for-a-dollar crusty classic. Various eclectic baked and dried goods are sold, as well as Vietnamese soups and snacks, coffees and elixirs. The $2 sandwiches are a must-try. The "special" is a sub stuffed full of roast pork, ham, pate spread, cilantro and thick juliennes of cucumber, carrots and giant radish. It's a visual and textural treat of quality and quantity served cheap. The unadventurous might skip the Vietnamese headcheese and bologna.
Global goodies: While waiting for your order, cruise the shelves and coolers for otherworldly wonders like translucent Day-Glo green and yellow spirals of green mung bean durian cake and taro root candy. There are shrimp chips, coconut cookies, lotus leaves stuffed with sticky rice, cold rice paper spring rolls, seaweed rice crackers and an assortment of layered puddings. One coffee-flavored custard in a cup was especially tasty. There are delicate cream puffs and croissants and big spongy puffs of Bao rolls stuffed with pineapple, pate, sausage, barbecue, port and egg. Grass jelly drinks, Asian iced coffees and teas, and energy drinks with names like "ram" promise intriguing refreshment.
For something hearty and warm, there are huge bowls of simmering rice or egg noodle soup (Pho), beef stew or rice congee. Vermicelli and rice dishes are generous in portion and topped with interesting mixes. The Com Tam Bi Suon Cha Opla topped a pillow of steamed rice with a grilled pork chop, fried egg and various shredded meat, and crunchy, fresh leafy herbs and greens. For around $5.50, the entree portions and price are perfection. Daily specials are also worth reviewing. A duck noodle soup or rice noodles with lemongrass chicken were recent features.
Exit with a shake: Don't leave without trying one of the smoothies ($3), perfect frozen mixes of fresh fruit like mango, strawberries and melons and condensed milk. A honeydew-flavored blend was one of the top 10 things I've ever put in my mouth.