The San Jose Mercury News reported that Le Van Ba, a sugar baron from Vietnam and the founder of the omnipresent chain of Vietnamese sandwich bakeries, Lee's Sandwiches, died Tuesday from cancer at the age of 79.
Lee's Sandwiches isn't an Orange County native--it started in 1983 in San Jose--but the stores are simply everywhere, a testament to the business acumen of Le and his extensive family. Even Anaheim and Irvine, not exactly centers of Vietnamese culture, have their outposts.
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Lee's Sandwiches are not the best example of the bánh mì, but in the spirit of de mortuis nil nisi bonum, I will say this: Le's empire is nearly single-handedly responsible for any non-Vietnamese present in a divey sandwich shop in Little Saigon. Sure, there are bloggers, Chowhounds and Yelpers who carry the banner of great, cheap sandwiches, but the first step is nearly always Lee's. They are the gateway drug that leads to Banh Mi Che Cali, Banh Mi Cho Cu, Nhu Lan Bakery and Top Baguette.
The stores are brightly lit, well-kept and non-Vietnamese friendly, with menus primarily in English and a selection of Western-style sandwiches for those who chicken out (pun absolutely intended) at the last second.
Rest in peace, Mr. Le.
Hat tip to Elina Shatkin of our sister publication LA Weekly.