Bringing Banh Mi to the Masses

If you've made a New Year's resolution to eat less, the Lunar New Year celebrations, which run this week, may be time to reconsider. Lunar New Year is all about good food, and one item sure to pop up at street events is the "banh mi," a Vietnamese sandwich with intriguing origins. It's a Vietnamese-French hybrid that harks back to Vietnam's colonial era. Banh mis have been slowly conquering the suburbs of California along business arteries where you'd expect to find a McDonald's or Wendy's. Reporter Corey Takahashi went deep into Orange and L.A. Counties to discover the future of banh mi.

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The first thing you want in a banh mi sandwich is a great baguette. But you can't make a judgment on bread alone. What's inside is important, too. And the ideal banh mi fillings are a mixture of spicy and cool, sweet and sour, all wrapped in crispy and pillowy bread.

"When you bite the baguette, there's like a crunchiness," says Noel Santos, a manager at Lee's Sandwiches in Irvine. It's the start of the weekend: Cash-strapped students pick up two to three dollar sandwiches on their way to parties. Some sip iced coffee and catch a basketball game on TV. Others just freeload off the Wi-Fi.

The Hasenohrl family finds a table. Cristina and her mother, Linda, have ordered the usual: barbeque pork banh mis, with extra meat. "It's an economical price - a very good price for the quality of the sandwich," says Linda Hasenohrl.

Still her husband Rich has brought a bag from the In-N-Out Burger across the street. "I don't know, I'm just a meat and potatoes guy," he says. Lee's Sandwiches may seem a little foreign to him. But this is actually a heavily Americanized banh mi shop. Most others are hole-in-the-walls - a cross between a bakery, a grandmother's kitchen and a street-vending booth.

Lee's started as a sandwich truck in 1981 in San Jose. From the beginning, the company was about meeting potential customers halfway. The family went as far as adopting the spelling "Lee," for their budding company, even though their surname is the Vietnamese "L-e." Their rise in the world of budget restaurants has everything to do with these subtle, cultural calculations.

Theirs is an old story of refugees finding a niche, and a new story of receptive American tastes. "You get a healthier meal with our sandwiches, rather than a greasy hamburger and French fries," says Jimmy Le, vice president of the Lee's banh mi dynasty. Lee's Sandwiches is still a family business. The top officers are related and, until recently, so were almost all of the franchisees. Jimmy's older brother Minh Le was a business student and the visionary behind Lee's culinary crossover. Minh died in a motorcycle accident in 2001. But first he established some of the company's guiding principles: Provide cheap food and a cool place to eat it. Today Lee's Sandwiches International boasts nearly 40 branches. The shops stretch from the West Coast to Texas. One of the newest locations where you can buy a Lee's banh mi is Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

"It's like bringing Taco Bell back to Mexico, right?" says Lee's marketing director, Lan Nguyen, as she gives me a tour of one of Lee's branches in the "Little Saigon" section of suburban Orange County. "But it's been done, and it works, and we see it being a potential big market." Lee's became the most widely known banh mi brand in America through this sort of bold thinking. But can a banh mi shop get too big?

Before Lee's, this world was almost entirely mom-and-pops, and part of the excitement of eating a banh mi - at least for this reporter - still comes from not knowing whether a hole-in-the-wall may give you a gem or give you food poisoning. Understandably, for many others, Lee's predictability is its biggest plus. It's clean, accessible and efficient. A banh mi you buy from Lee's in San Francisco will pretty much taste the same as the one you get in Houston, Oklahoma City, or Chandler, Ariz. As Lee's expands to new markets, it's still trying to keep in touch with its refugee roots. In Little Saigon--where Lee's shops are easier to find than McDonald's - a dancing dragon will perform outside its largest branch there during Lunar New Year revelry. Lee's will invite the dragon to dance inside the store, to endow it with good luck.

There's a little luck involved in Lee's success - and a lot of changing appetites. No matter how much Lee's Americanizes the banh mi, though, don't expect those dancing dragons to come with fries.

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