Lee’s Sandwiches offers high-tech vegan pork now, and it’s really cool

A year ago, I tried Impossible Foods’ vegan chicken nuggets with some skepticism. In my experience, tech-based alternatives to meat often hang around in the uncanny valley, making the dining experience uneasy. But what I realized when I ate the chops was that Americans’ expectations of chicken nuggets rarely had anything to do with chicken – so the vegetarian version could be devoid of expectation of mimicking perfect poultry.

Recently, a new product presented an even stronger challenge: OmniFoods’ vegetarian pork chops, which became available in char siu form at two San Jose locations from Lee’s Sandwiches late last year. Made primarily with soy protein concentrate, the strips are part of Hong Kong’s OmniPork line of meat substitutes, including a vegan take on spam made for a seamless entry into Asian Pacific island-style cooking.

In two of Lee’s sandwiches carrying OmniPork, the fillets are cooked with ruby ​​red char siu dressing and used in sandwiches, steamed bao, rice paper rolls and rice bowls. The marinade is the same that the shop uses for roast pork, so the flavor was great. Crispy char spots on the ends of the strips emphasize the sweet and savory flavors of the marinade as well as suggesting a hearty flame. The fillets had the fiber and vitality of the cooked pork. The regular mayonnaise has also been replaced with a vegan variety.

Vegetarian char siu bánh mi (left) along with regular char siu báhn at Lee’s Sandwiches in San Jose.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

If you put it head-to-head against meat-based meats, the vegan sandwich will hold its own perfectly—with the only real science being the relative uniformity of thickness of matchsticks for vegan slices. Even though food tech companies talk a lot about “disruption”, I’ve never really felt that their projects have become so exciting. But here, with this sandwich, I’m starting to feel like this can really clear up the loose stereotypes about vegan food, Asian food, and who else can claim.

What sets the two OmniPork shops apart is their owner, Thang Le. The youngest of the family that founded the company in San Jose in 1983, Lu was using his share of the shops as a testing ground for a new restaurant at classic Banh Mi. Le Stores is definitely more chic (and some might say “more hipster”) than usual, with recessed lighting, spray-on wall art, and craft beer. Bringing in more vegetarian options is another part of his plan.

When I walked into Le’s store in downtown San Jose, I immediately noticed that I had to browse the menu to find the exact vegan sandwich I wanted. Unlike most other locations at Lee’s Sandwiches, there was an entire section of nearly a dozen meatless panh mì options, from old school two-tea ($6.69) to vegan fried chicken ($11.49) to vegan herb-soaked tofu. Lemon ($9.99).

A customer leaves with his lunch order at Lee's Sandwiches in San Jose.

A customer leaves with his lunch order at Lee’s Sandwiches in San Jose.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

The main meat-free option at Banh Mu is usually a type of marinated and/or fried tofu, served plain or dipped in a quick marinade. Other Lee sites often stick to bi chay, a vegetarian approximation of shredded pork skin made with bean noodles, and fresh, fresh tofu. Vietnamese Buddhists, and others who avoid meat, prefer many of the bouncy, smooth textures that mimic the satisfyingly chewy, noodles appearance of pig skin. You would never mistake this for meat, but that’s generally not the point.

“Bi chay is very traditional and old,” he told me. “For me, it’s a bit boring and outdated.” He is happy to use his platform as a descendant of the Le family to use plant-based ingredients to attract both old-school Vietnamese and new non-Vietnamese customers into the kitchen. Lu, who is himself a Buddhist, says explicitly declaring vegetarian meats Buddhist-friendly does much to bridge the generational gap. And while the new vegan options are more expensive, averaging $5 more than the basic bánh mì, Lu says they’re in great demand.

As accessible as it may be, the launch of OmniPork at Lee’s Sandwiches is a straightforward show on the stomachs of Vietnamese Americans. Although small, the move goes in parallel with the strategy of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which has struck big deals with fast food giants Burger King and Carl’s Jr. To carry veggie burgers.

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