At This Sandwich Shop, A Vietnamese Pop Star Serves Up Banh Mi

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Lynda Trang Dai sits inside her restaurant, Lynda Sandwich, in Orange County, Calif.

Lynda Trang Dai sits inside her restaurant, Lynda Sandwich, in Orange County, Calif. Lisa Morehouse/For NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lisa Morehouse/For NPR

In Orange County, Calif., there is no shortage of restaurants promoting bánh mì, that delicious Vietnamese sandwich of meat, pate, fresh and pickled vegetables on a crunchy baguette. The OC’s Tiny Saigon is property to the largest Vietnamese population outdoors of Vietnam. A single shop in the town of Westminster stands out from the rest: It really is got an actual pop star behind the counter, a lady known as the Vietnamese Madonna.

Lynda Trang Dai is definitely glamorous for a sandwich maven. She sports stiletto heels, a brief skirt, and best make-up — such as false eyelashes.

Her shop, Lynda Sandwich, sits in the middle of a parking lot in a strip mall. Inside, though, it feels like a posh living area, with lush plants, brightly painted murals of her idols like Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe, and a wide-screen Tv playing the Meals Network. And for numerous of her buyers, Lynda is a bit of an idol herself.

“I utilised to, like, watch her in videos with my parents when I was a kid growing up. So, she’s fairly well-known amongst the Vietnamese community,” says buyer Patrick Pham, adding sheepishly, “I in no way met her, personally,” even although she’s actually at a table just a few feet away. He’s clearly star-struck, but he insists he comes for the bánh mì.

“They have genuinely excellent meals right here,” he says. “Really straightforward. I think the entire baguette came from like France, when they colonized us for 100 years.”

Leaving Vietnam

Lynda Trang Dai’s life story is fairly extraordinary, but as she talks even about her earliest days, in the ’70s in Central Vietnam, it really is clear that meals has often been central.

“I remember sitting on this wooden table, my grandmother taught me how to make bánh bèo, dough with shrimp on it,” a dish she nevertheless loves, she says. Following the war, her family went from properly-off to poor, and she remembers, “I would get fruit, a entire huge watermelon, cut it up, and sell it and make funds.”

Then, in 1979, her father got tipped off that the government suspected him of aiding the CIA throughout the war. They escaped at 2 in the morning, family members members split between tiny boats.

“We had to be quiet, so quiet,” Lynda remembers. “It was scary. If we got caught, we’d go to jail.” They went by means of storms and ran out of food, and finally discovered some refuge on a Chinese island, exactly where she says they were fed rice with sugar. “It really is strange to consume rice with sugar, but it was so very good at the time.”

They got back on the water, headed for Hong Kong, and then saw the huge British ship that would save them. They all started waving. “I could never ever neglect, it was just unbelievable, the most remarkable moment,” Lynda remembers, choking up. “When we got up for them to rescue us into land, they gave us croissants. That was like going from hell to heaven.”

The beginning of pop stardom

Lynda Trang Dai performs at a show earlier this year in Westminster, Calif. She continues to perform internationally.

Lynda Trang Dai performs at a show earlier this year in Westminster, Calif. She continues to carry out internationally. Lisa Morehouse/For NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lisa Morehouse/For NPR

But when her household got to the U.S., she created one more passion, and discovered her first profession. As a higher school student, she started singing in tiny venues about Tiny Saigon, placing up her own fliers, till one night she was discovered singing at a club. She was invited to film her first spot in a variety show known as Paris By Night — a hugely common video series — so she missed her high college graduation and flew to France.

She became a star, dressing provocatively and singing in each English and Vietnamese, a draw for young Vietnamese Americans. In the 1990s in any property all through the Vietnamese diaspora, you’d almost certainly uncover a VHS tape featuring Lynda Trang Dai. The videos even produced it back to Vietnam in a kind of grey industry. “Back then, it really is illegal to watch,” Lynda explains, adding that if individuals got caught they could go to jail.

But millions in Vietnam did watch.

The influence of Vietnamese meals

As she began touring, Lynda’s obsession with Vietnamese meals remained constant. She says the 1st time she went to Australia, she brought meals on the plane with her, which includes bánh bèo and a noodle soup that she asked the flight attendant to heat up. She quickly discovered there was great Vietnamese meals all more than the planet, and started a type of ritual wherever she touched down. “In any city I’d go to, I’d just verify in on the hotel, throw all my luggage down and go and discover a Vietnamese restaurant,” she says.

She nevertheless tours a lot, but when I go to, she’s performing in Westminster, Calif., in a banquet hall converted to a club for the night. People in the crowd are dressed to the nines, including sisters Hang and Juliette Nguyen, who grew up in Alabama in the ’80s. Lynda, they say, was a single of the large Vietnamese stars of their youth.

She was the Madonna, “the Vietnamese Madonna,” the Nguyen sisters say in unison.

Tonight, the singer is dressed in a barely-there strappy outfit, fitting the sex-symbol image the sisters remember. But Lynda says that’s just her onstage persona. “When I’m off stage, I’m like one hundred % entirely various, a total Vietnamese conventional girl who takes care of their family, meals on the table, every little thing,” she says.

Case in point: She started her sandwich shop as a company with her household, and even though a little employees does most of the meals prep and sales, Lynda Trang Dai is nonetheless is the only one particular to make the particular Lynda Sauce.

“At times when I travel to Australia to sing on a tour, or to Europe, I would be up all evening here making sauce, and just sleep on the plane if I have to,” she says. Something, she says, for a fantastic meal.


Lisa Morehouse’s series California Foodways is supported by Cal Humanities. She produced this story while at a residency at Mesa Refuge. The story very first aired on KCRW’s Very good Meals as element of the Independent Producer Project.

Arts &amp Life : NPR