In his discussion of the influence of the Vietnamese diaspora, Andrew Lam mentions banh mi along with pho as an Asian food item that is becoming mainstream. For those of you don’t know, banh mi is a Vietnamese sandwich, a fusion of French bread and meats with various Asian ingredients. One of the key reasons that banh mi has increased in popularity is because of Le Van Ba, who died recently at the age of 79. Le Van Ba is the founder of Lee’s Sandwiches, a chain of more than thirty Vietnamese sandwiches stores that have spread across the US. The Mercury News obituary for Le Van Ba calls him the “Ray Kroc” of Vietnamese sandwiches.
Has Lee’s sandwiches been a key factor in the growth in popularity of banh mi? I’d definitely agree! This blog post says while some may argue that there is much better banh mi than that of Lee’s Sandwiches, the author credits Lee Sandwiches as being a “gateway drug” for getting non-Vietnamese addicted to this kind of sandwich. Again, I’d have to agree. It’s the first place where I had banh mi. My sons’ school holds special lunches as a fund raiser, and one of the special lunches is banh mi catered from Lee’s sandwiches.
Le Van Ba came to the US thirty years ago and after stays in New Mexico and Monterey, settled in San Jose. Not wanting to work for other people, he founded a sandwich shop and a lunch truck business. His grandson Minh Le, then a 21 year old business student at San Jose State University, suggested that fast food principles be applied to the sandwich business, and Lee’s Sandwiches started on its expansion. Lee’s Sandwiches are clean and friendly to non-Vietnamese, with signs in English and some traditional American sandwiches also. Le Ban Ba is survived by his wife, children, twenty grandchildren, and many many people, including myself, who are fans of banh mi because of him.