On April 30, 1975, the Vietnam War ended, Saigon fell, and over 125,000 Vietnamese refugees were evacuated. Originally scattered throughout the country under government sponsorship, the Vietnamese refugee population soon formed ethnic enclaves in California, Texas, Louisiana, and Massachusetts. At the center of these communities were momand-pop Asian grocery stores and restaurants. Filling the culinary gaps and memories and desires and cravings of the immigrant population, these eateries served cơm tấm (broken rice), bò lúc lắc (shaken beef), phở, and other Vietnamese delicacies.
The bánh mì, however, took on a different cultural significance—especially in the Bay Area. Similar to its humble beginnings in Saigon, the Vietnamese American bánh mì was served as a snack and lunch meal to assembly line workers in the Silicon Valley who were looking for something quick and affordable. One of the first pioneers of the bánh mì were the Lê brothers, who started with two food trucks before expanding their business into one of the largest bakery chains in the United States: Lee’s Sandwiches®. Over the decades, Lee’s Sandwiches has adhered to preparing and serving traditional variations of the bánh mì while maintaining affordable and accessible prices for those within and outside of the Vietnamese American community.
I, myself, spent many midterms and finals weeks sustaining myself on their freshly baked $1.50 baguettes and jumbo-sized cups of cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk). Today, the bánh mì has expanded beyond Vietnamese eateries and has become a source of inspiration, recreation, and some might argue, appropriation. One such example can be found on Jack in the Box’s Food Truck Series sandwiches menu, with an “Asian fried chicken sandwich,” featuring crispy fried chicken strips, slices of cucumber, “an Asian-style slaw,” and gochujang mayonnaise on a rice-flour baguette.
At a $4.99 price tag, this version of the sandwich doesn’t vary too far away from the cost of a bánh m. at Vietnamese fast food eateries, but the presence of gochujang leaves room for criticism. After all, gochujang is a Korean chili paste, and there are other Vietnamese chili sauces that could make up the spicy component of this aioli (i.e. Huy Fong’s Sriracha is a Sino-Vietnamese American invention, created in California).