In all my time living and writing about food in Long Beach, there is one culinary truth that continues to hold fast about the city's otherwise vibrant downtown: a good, cheap sandwich is hard to find.
Sure, you can buy two pieces of bread stuffed with meat from a few corporate outposts around downtown, but for the most part, you have to trek to Rocco's Italian Deli or make do with a pre made coffeeshop 'wich for your fill of the quintessential lunchtime meal. The lack of sandwich variety and quality is an affliction that office workers note in their glassdoor.com entries and one that residents forced to stand in line at the Subway on Pacific Ave. resent with all of their hungry hearts.
So, when a cursed storefront on the ground floor of the Lafayette in the East Village Arts District (its last tenants served under-appreciated Cuban food) recently reopened as a space-age-looking place called Alien Sandwiches, I felt the distinct need to enter its otherwise unappealing front door.
I'm glad I did. Because not only is Alien Sandwiches a new place to get sandwiches downtown, it's also the first Vietnamese cafe in downtown, which means that the sandwiches are not your mustard-and-mayo spreads, but instead delicious banh mis.
A cozy coffeeshop interior and simple menu board above the walk-up counter indicates that despite its name, Alien Sandwiches would like you to buy a drink. More than 35 kinds of smoothies, milk teas and Asian coffees make up most of the available items (they cost nearly as much as the French baguette sandwiches, anyway), and can of course be upgraded with a helping of chewy boba or salmon-roe-sized popping pearls on the bottom.
After stopping in at different times of the day for some soursop smoothies, sea salt taro tea and pistachio blended coffee (and receiving free samples of whatever was lying around each time), I finally managed to hit it at lunch when it was appropriate to order a sandwich, which for $4.75 nets you one of eight common Vietnamese protein fillings. Since it's a static price regardless of whether you get the meatball, fried egg or chicken sandwich, the "Deli Cold" combo is the best deal, with slices of red-fringed roasted pork and thin-cut pork roll pressed into the bottom of a soft, carby torpedo along with the requisite amounts of crunchy pickled carrots, radish, cilantro, cucumber and jalepeños.
Like its cousin locations in San Gabriel, Rosemead and Westminster (the same family owns the more traditional and bakery-oriented Banh Mi Saigon chain), Alien Sandwiches proves it can make a mean banh mi, however, their experiments with off-menu items–from paté chaud to shrimp toast–are worth checking out too.
Most days now, a chalkboard on the sidewalk announces that Alien Sandwiches has fresh pho–a specialty served nowhere in Long Beach south of Anaheim St. Despite the high pricing ($9 for a large, $7 for a medium), this is some competitive Southeast Asian soup, comprised of a umami-filled, fatty brown broth spooned from a gurgling crock pot stuffed with more than a dozen oversized pork bones (ask to try the marrow!).
Before Alien Sandwiches, I thought it was hard to find a good sandwich in downtown Long Beach, but I realize now that the difficulty was nothing compared to trying to find good pho or banh mi for lunch down there. Thankfully, from its hidden, shaded entry on Broadway, this quiet, slightly whitewashed ("mi trang," my Vietnamese friend called it), months-old Vietnamese cafe is breaking all kinds of culinary boundaries in a part of the city not known for its ethnic stronghold.
Office dwellers and disillusioned residents no longer have to suffer through another over-processed turkey avocado from Subway to get their sandwich fix when there's finally banh mi filled with grilled pork and fresh cilantro waiting for them in the East Village.
Alien Sandwiches, 510 E Broadway Long Beach, (562) 495-5999