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Chicago Area Banh Mi

My first visit to Ba Le (banh mi ground zero)


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My first visit to Ba Le (banh mi ground zero)

Pete Oldtown | Jun 13, 2007 08:09 PM

I know there have been many mentions of Ba Le here over the years, but I'm a creature of habit and when the banh mi bug bites, I always head to Pho 888 on Argyle. Well, on Monday the bug bit and I hopped the Red Line to Argyle, only to discover Pho 888 is closed on Mondays. After picking up some staples at the Viet grocery east of the El stop, and noticing a lot of other restaurants were closed, I asked a clerk where I could find banh mi to take home, and was directed to Ba Le, right at the intersection where Argyle dead-ends at Broadway.

At most places here, banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches on mini-baguettes) are sort of a side business. Ba Le is a banh mi factory. They sell some other things, but 90 percent of their business is sandwiches and, for those who prefer, many of the Vietnamese meats used to stuff them. They offer 13 different varieties, all illustrated with huge color photos so you'll have a good idea what you're getting.

Having just consumed a huge bowl of pho, I was planning to bring these home, so I ordered the two cold sandwiches on the menu, a cold-cut combo and a lemongrass pork version. Then I noticed a nice chicken/sausage/rice salad, and bought that too. Then, since I already had the doctored fish sauce they use as dressing for the sandwiches, I picked up some of the cold cuts, including a satisfying lump of the bologna-like sausage they use for many of the sandwiches (the girl behind the counter just called it "white meat" when I asked what it was, since the wrapping gave no clue), and I bought a bag of the baguettes as well.

The guy in front of me was picking up a phone order: two bulging sacks of banh mi, about 20 of the critters. I took this as a good sign.

Overall, the food was very good, but I was a bit disappointed in the bread, which for some reason is baked in Philadelphia and didn't have the crusty chewiness I'm used to. I imagine it improves when grilled for the hot versions, but it was pretty limp, IMO.

The filllings, however, were terrific. Both sandwiches included a smear of Vietnamese pate along with the cold-cuts, and they were both really stuffed. For $2.75 apiece, a bit higher than prices nearby, which range from $2 to $2.50, they're a bargain. For those unfamiliar with banh mi, they're dressed with shredded carrot, cucumber and pickled vegetables, a bit of sliced jalepeno, cilantro and a sweet fish sauce blend that appears to have vinegar, sugar and garlic blended in. One is satisfying; two are a full meal.

I still prefer Pho 888's versions, which seem a bit more flavorful and feature better bread, but on the other hand I didn't get to sample Ba Le's grilled pork, BBQ pork, pork skin and other hot sandwiches, which looked fantastic.

I made my own banh mi tonight for dinner, and they came out great. My daughter was amazed that they were so similar to restaurant versions, which she loves.

I'll definitely try it again, in large part due to the variety available and the speedy, friendly service.

Plus, the ability to buy the components and make your own at home is great. For about $10, I got the fixings for about 10 sandwiches, although I had to buy some sliced pork at Treasure Island for the full effect.

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