If there is anything good that came out of French colonialism in Indochina, it's the bánh mì, otherwise known as the Vietnamese sandwich. And the man who helped popularize it in California was Le Van Ba.
Le, the founder of the widespread Lee's Sandwiches chain, died last week at 79. The headline of his obituary in the San Jose Mercury News, his hometown paper, called him "the Ray Kroc of Vietnamese sandwiches."
Which is appropriate. A successful sugar planter in his native Vietnam, Le began the sandwich business with his family after starting over as an immigrant in San Jose. According to the Mercury-News story, the business really took off in the last decade after Le took the advice of his U.S.-born grandson, who suggested he adopt American fast food-style business principles. The chain expanded to where there are now close to 40 of the sandwich shops in five states, most of them in California.
Without Lee's Sandwiches, many Californians might never have discovered the wonder that is the Vietnamese sandwich, a mashup of crusty European-style bread with sweet, salty, spicy Asian-style fillings. The neatly-wrapped sandwich pictured at left (inside: thinly sliced barbecued pork, fresh carrots, cilantro, chiles) was my lunch a couple of months ago at one of the Lee's shops in Westminster.
Thank you, Mr. Le.