L & G Vietnamese Sandwich (602 Eddy Street/ Larkin Street) is a small sandwich shop with one standing table in the window, low prices, generously-sized sandwiches and a lot of love for its neighbors. Started by immigrants who lived through the Khmer Rouge’s brutal reign in Cambodia, Ki (pronounced Key) Giang and her husband, Minh Lam, raised three sons in the Tenderloin and have been residents here for nearly thirty years. Their son Aaron Lam, who we spoke with for this interview, was born in San Francisco shortly after they arrived as refugees from Vietnam.
For Ki and Minh, their story starts in Cambodia where they met. Each had been placed in work camps under the notorious control of the Khmer Rouge during the mid-to-late seventies. This dark time in history led to the deaths of an estimated two million Cambodians, civilians massacred as villages were torched. The regime was eventually removed from power in 1979 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia. For Ki and Minh, this was also when they were liberated and moved to a refugee camp in Vietnam, along with many others.
Once settled into Vietnam, Ki started selling Vietnamese sandwiches as a street food vendor. Making food was something she could already do and, as Aaron shares, “at the time, she did what she could to make a living.” They then moved to America where she worked at a restaurant for around ten years.
Ki used her combined knowledge of food and cuisine from her Cambodian upbringing and what she had acquired in Vietnam to eventually open L&G Sandwich.
“Once her three kids were old enough to mostly take care of themselves, she and my father saved up a nest egg, and decided to open up their own sandwich shop. Making food was something my mom learned to do when she was growing up and she always wanted to own her own business. And that’s how the idea got started…L&G is also their initials—their two last names combined.”
Outside of his full-time job, Aaron helps L&G when he can and with the more business side of the shop. Ki handles the cooking, prep, and is likely the person you’ll see working the shop. His dad works the night shift as a porter at SF General Hospital, then helps the shop during the day.
Aaron still lives in the Tenderloin. Looking back to growing up with his two brothers in the neighborhood, he had this to say:
“The Tenderloin has changed in a sense but a lot of the same things hold true. The Tenderloin has always been a place for refugees. Many of the residents here are Southeast Asian, South Asian, and also Latino immigrants. Most people are essentially working class and likely an ethnic minority. It’s been a very nice melting pot. The kids growing up here grow up together, and the diversity is something that stays with them—in the hearts of these individuals.”
Aaron also remembers how critical neighborhood programs and parks, like Tenderloin Rec Center were for him. This is where he recalls spending a lot of time and it also served as additional support for working parents.
“Growing up, I didn’t really have any negative thoughts about the neighborhood. I didn’t realize it was “a ‘quote-unquote’ bad neighborhood or a bad place for kids to grow up. For the most part, my parents were great support, and the after school programs that do exist in the Tenderloin were really responsive and able to take care of the children that attended them.”
L & G owners Ki Giang and her husband, Minh Lam with their three sons.
What his parents like best about the neighborhood is a sense of community and shared culture. They have friends that check on them at L & G and they speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Khmer (the Cambodian language), Vietnamese, and also some English—so there is no shortage of people to converse with, or share food and recipes with…
“They like that it’s very familial and familiar for them [in the Tenderloin]. Many of the people that live here, and the people they frequently interact with, are from parts of Cambodia, China and Vietnam that they were also from. It’s not rare for them to have friends that were from that area or that knew somebody from that area where they had lived. And having that helps them be more comfortable in an area that’s so foreign to them, particularly in the beginning. Now it’s a home base.
Photo by Yelp User, Greg B
Since the start of COVID, L&G has weathered some steep profit losses, particularly at the beginning and when the lunch crowds thinned out, with students out of sight and less people coming into the neighborhood for work. They have since seen some return to normalcy but say that many days are still really tough. With sandwiches still around $5, they avoid the app services because the profits would basically be nothing at all. Those in the neighborhood know they can still get a great sandwich at a low price and stop by for takeaway…just like before.
And while COVID has seemed to put many pastimes on hold for Ki, including one of their favorites which is dining at other restaurants in the neighborhood—big goals aren’t stuck on the back burner. Ki dreams of opening a sit-down restaurant in the near future. The menu would add stews, soups, and other harder-to-find recipes from Cambodia. At an affordable price and still in the Tenderloin!