At This Sandwich Shop, A Vietnamese Pop Star Serves Up Banh Mi : The Salt Lynda Trang Dai, known as the "Vietnamese Madonna," performs around the world. Back home in California, she's got a different starring role: she's the only one to whip up her sandwiches' secret sauce.
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At This Sandwich Shop, A Vietnamese Pop Star Serves Up Banh Mi

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

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

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All that talk about breakfast make us think about lunch, especially that spicy Vietnamese sandwich called banh mi. In Orange County, Calif., there are lots of places to get it because it's home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. But as Lisa Morehouse reports, one of those shops is run by a Vietnamese pop star.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LISA MOREHOUSE, BYLINE: There's a capacity crowd at this large suburban banquet hall, converted to a club for the night. They're all dressed to the nines, and they're all here to see Lynda Trang Dai.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOREHOUSE: Sisters Hang and Juliette Nguyen grew up in Alabama in the '80s. Lynda's music formed the soundtrack of their lives.

HANG NGUYEN: These were the big Vietnamese stars when we were younger. And we used to watch them on videos and we'd go to their concerts whenever they did come down south.

MOREHOUSE: Tonight, Lynda's wearing a barely-there strappy outfit, which fits her image.

H. NGUYEN: She was considered the sex symbol for her time, right, for a Vietnamese singer.

JULIETTE NGUYEN: Yeah. She was the Madonna - the Vietnamese Madonna.

MOREHOUSE: But in the early '70s, long before Lynda Trang Dai became the Vietnamese Madonna, she was a little girl in Central Vietnam.

LYNDA TRANG DAI: I remember sitting on this wooden table, my grandmother even taught me how to make banh beo- it's called banh beo, which is dough with shrimp on it.

MOREHOUSE: A dish she still loves. After the war, her family went from well-off to poor.

DAI: I would buy fruit, like I would buy the whole big watermelon, cut it up and sell it.

MOREHOUSE: And then in 1979, her father got tipped off that the government suspected him of aiding the CIA during the war.

DAI: So we escaped on a boat. We had to be quiet - so quiet - and just - it was scary.

MOREHOUSE: They went through storms and ran out of food.

DAI: And then finally, we went to one of the China island, and they kind of rescued us with rice and sugar. You know, it's strange to eat rice with sugar, but it was so good at the time.

MOREHOUSE: They got back on the water headed for Hong Kong, then saw the large British ship that would save them.

DAI: We were like waving and, oh, my God, I could never forget. It was just unbelievable, amazing - most amazing moment. And when they rescued us into the land and they gave us a croissant.

MOREHOUSE: Eating that croissant was like going from hell to heaven, she says. Did you notice that in each memory of important events, Lynda Trang Dai brought up food? It's so important in her life that it's not really a surprise she runs a restaurant with her family. Lynda Sandwich is in a brick building in the middle of a parking lot in a strip mall. But inside, it feels like a posh living room with bright colors and lush plants. Lynda is at a back table, sporting stiletto heels, a short skirt and perfect makeup, including false eyelashes. Patrick Pham is a customer here.

PATRICK PHAM: She's pretty famous among the Vietnamese community. I never met her personally.

MOREHOUSE: The fan boy is too shy to even approach her just a few feet away.

PHAM: I know (laughter).

MOREHOUSE: Like many customers, Pham first came here because he knows Lynda's music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE SO VAIN")

DAI: (Singing) You're so vain. You're so vain.

MOREHOUSE: After arriving in the U.S., Lynda Trang Dai went from high school performer to household name, singing with a popular Vietnamese variety show, "Paris By Night."

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

DAI: (Singing in foreign language).

MOREHOUSE: In the '90s, in any home throughout the Vietnamese diaspora, you'd probably find a VHS tape featuring Lynda. The videos even got back to Vietnam.

DAI: Back then, the people in Vietnam, they have to hide it. It's illegal to watch it.

MOREHOUSE: But millions did watch them there.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

DAI: (Singing in foreign language).

MOREHOUSE: Even as Lynda started touring Vietnamese communities around the U.S. and the world, food remained central.

DAI: Any city I would go to, I would check in at the hotel, throw my luggage and go find Vietnamese restaurants.

MOREHOUSE: Other musicians encouraged her to start a restaurant of her own. And about five years ago, Lynda Sandwich was born.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

MOREHOUSE: A small staff does most of the food prep and sales. But Lynda Trang Dai is still the only one to make the special Lynda sauce that goes on the sandwiches.

DAI: This is my sauce maker. Sometimes when I travel to Australia to sing on a tour or to Europe, I will be up all night here making sauce and sleep on the plane.

MOREHOUSE: Evidence, she says, that that sexy onstage image is just for entertainment.

DAI: When I'm offstage, I'm, like, 100 percent completely different, a total Vietnamese traditional girl.

MOREHOUSE: Working hard to balance running a sandwich shop and being a pop star. For NPR News, I'm Lisa Morehouse in Westminster, Calif.

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