A few weeks ago I spotted Lee’s Coffee for sale in Costco, a large warehouse club store. Lee’s Coffee is bánh mì chain Lee’s Sandwiches’ version of traditional Vietnamese cà phê sữa đá. It seems to be popular enough with a broad audience that they are now selling it in a mainstream warehouse club setting. (Keep in mind, though, that this store in Azusa, California is very close to the Asian ethnoburbs of the San Gabriel Valley.)
According to their website, Lee Bros. Foodservices was started by Vietnamese American entrepreneur Chieu Le (the extra “e” was added to make it easier for non-Vietnamese to pronounce) in San Jose in the early 1980s. In the early 2000s, they expanded, opening stores in Southern California and adding new products aimed at getting customers from outside of the Vietnamese community.
The new Lee’s was a hit and they have since expanded across the country and around the world. (A few years ago they even advertised that they will deliver Lee’s Coffee to Vietnam!) Today, most Lee’s stores I’ve been to in California are actually English-dominant, with the menu written mostly in English and cashiers addressing you in English unless you speak to them in Vietnamese first.
It’s fascinating how quickly bánh mì and cà phê sữa đá have gone mainstream in the US, at least in metropolitan centers with Vietnamese enclaves. Thanks in part to a new urge among Americans to be culturally omnivorous, both items seem to have been introduced to non-Vietnamese Americans in their original form, more or less. Lee’s and other ambitious bánh mì shops do sell “French-style” sandwiches for those who can’t stomach the thought of pig’s ears in their baguette, and Lee’s prepared coffee flattens the learning curve by eliminating the traditional coffeemaker, but unlike North American Chinese food the gap between what they eat in the old country and what you get at a fast food shop in suburban Oklahoma is not very big.
On a related note, this morning I spotted Mama brand instant noodles from Thailand on sale in Albertson’s, a mainstream grocery store (again in the San Gabriel Valley). Albertson’s does have an ethnic foods aisle, but this is considerably more “exotic” than anything I found there. (Dr. McDougall’s Asian Entrée cups, anyone?)