(While Marie and I take a week off from food writing, our friend Neal continues filling in with a week’s worth of reading about some of the meals that he’s enjoyed while out in southern California on business. Enjoy!)
Grant doesn’t normally allow negative reviews on this blog, but this is a tale I felt was worth sharing. I’ll leave it up to him if he publishes it or not.
Our rule of thumb when visiting the Irvine office is we don’t eat anywhere we can eat back in Atlanta. I think it is a generally good rule for any sort of travel really. Why bother with Friday’s when you can eat at Rudy’s? So when the subject of lunch came up on Wednesday I deferred to the locals. Almost immediately it was suggested we head out to Lee’s Sandwiches at UC Irvine. My coworker, who shall remain nameless, insisted they had fantastic food at unbelievable prices. Two others immediately backed out of joining us for lunch when we mentioned Lee’s. “I’ve never tried it because I can’t get past the smell.” This should have been my first warning.
Lee’s shares a parking lot with the In-N-Out Burger we visited earlier in the week. Thinking back on it now I have a vague memory from a past trip of another coworker pointing it out and remarking that they had very good food but that it was a specific, unique taste that one had to get used to. They are also a cash only establishment, so we had to roam the shopping plaza for an ATM before heading in.
Lee’s is set up like a cafeteria. The cheap sandwiches, most under $3, and their proximity to the UC Irvine campus make it a popular lunch destination for the student body. The menu seemed harmless enough at first glance. They had grilled chicken, grilled pork and turkey. My buddy recommended the grilled pork and then he innocently asked if I had ever heard of durian. I had not, so he said “Dude, you have try the durian smoothie. It’s awesome. My wife and I love those things.” I immediately placed my order. Then things started to go horribly wrong.
While we waited on our food my coworker continued to talk about durian. “Most people don’t like it because of the smell, and it really isn’t a fruit but I don’t know what else to call it. It also has a very strong taste and well, there is the smell.”
I blinked, my mouth agape. “This would have been useful information two minutes ago when I ordered the damn thing,” I tell him.
“It’ll be fine. Trust me,” he replied.
I look around and take a deep breath. “Is that what I’ve been smelling in here? Durian?” The air in the place was thick with some sickeningly sweet odor. I had been trying to ignore it but I was beginning to understand why the others had backed out. I also noticed that everyone else in the place was Asian.
“Partially. You also smell the sandwiches,” he tells me.
“It’ll be fine. Trust me.”
My food arrives and it doesn’t look too appetizing. The pork reminded me a bit of burnt bacon. On top of the pork was an odd assortment of onions, peppers, jalapeños and lots and lots of cilantro. The smoothie looked innocent enough, and I didn’t immediately notice an odor coming from it. I reached for it and my friend stopped me.
“Wait, before you taste that let me read you the info from Wikipedia on durian.”
“You aren’t instilling any confidence in me that this won’t make me sick,” I say.
He ignored me and went on. The wikipedia entry on durian is long, so I’ll only mention the portions that alarmed me.
“The edible flesh emits a distinctive odour, strong and penetrating even when the husk is intact. Some people regard the durian as fragrant; others find the aroma overpowering and offensive. The smell evokes reactions from deep appreciation to intense disgust. Its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away. Despite its great local popularity, the raw fruit is forbidden from some establishments such as hotels, subways and airports, including public transportation in Southeast Asia.”
He finished his tale of woe and smiled. “Now you can taste it.” I suddenly realize I had been set up.
The odor was as bad as Wikipedia had warned it would be. So bad my eyes watered a bit, but I pressed onward and took a big sip. In contrast, the flavor takes a moment to build on your tongue. At first it seemed fairly bland and my immediate thought was “well it isn’t the best thing I’ve tasted but I could certainly finish it.” I let it sit for a moment and took another sip. At this point the flavor had begun to come alive, and began to eat away at my tongue and the inner lining of my mouth. I suddenly had the sensation that I was licking a fish that had been swimming in a sewer, rolled in the dust that collects underneath your refrigerator and then placed into a year-old sock. Combined with the smell it became too much and I pushed it away.
“Dude, that’s just not right.”
“You don’t like it?”
I got myself a Diet Coke and set out to tackle my sandwich, which turned out to be as terrible as the smoothie. The bread was rock hard, the pork tasted like shoe leather and there was so much cilantro that I feared I may never get the smell out of my head or my clothes. For the rest of the day I revisited this hell lunch every time I burped. I made sure that most if not all of these gaseous emissions took place near the coworker who tricked me into ordering illegal pungent fruit.
Lee’s website claims they are the number one Vietnamese & Euro-Asian sandwich shop in the country. That very well may be true, but UrbanSpoon says they have an 84% like rating, and given that their clientele is almost exclusively Asian, and only 49 people vote I am inclined to think that if only 84% of 49 Asians like the number one Euro-Asian sandwich shop then that isn’t a good indicator. The final verdict, if you know what you are getting into and you know you like a pound of cilantro on everything then Lee’s is probably the place for you. If you are a tourist wandering in off the street then you should probably take the few extra steps to In-N-Out instead.