My first visit to Ba Le (banh mi ground zero)
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.
I was told that Ba Le was a actually a chain of stores around the US. Can anybody confirm this?
When I'm down by Argyle I always seem to end up at Tank Noodle (basically across the street from Ba Le). I can't say I've ever tried the bahn mi though.
Originally I started going to Tank because it's always crowded and they have a picture of a tank on there sign. Is Pho 888 superior in any way? I ask because it seems considerably less popular. IMO Tank is as good as any of the Vietnemese places I've been in NYC or Milwaukee.
"Is Pho 888 superior in any way? I ask because it seems considerably less popular. IMO Tank is as good as any of the Vietnemese places I've been in NYC or Milwaukee."
Tank has a much more varied/extensive menu, and, IMO, pound for pound, they do a better job with their varied/extensive menu items than any other Vietnamese restaurant in the neighbourhood. That said, Pho 888 does a number of things quite well. Most notably, they are one of the only establishments in the area keeping the dying art of Franco-Viet-style charcuterie alive, and they make their own meatballs, steamed pork loaves, fried pork loaves, and sour pork sausage.
I am not particularly keen on their pho broth, but short of bulk-ordering their delicious meatballs for takeaway, it's one of the only ways I get to enjoy the little buggers. Give them a try.
Some of the other things I can recommend include:
Ca Ri De- Goat Curry with banh mi or rice noodles (Special offering)
Bun Mam- Anchovy-flavoured noodle soup with Catfish and shrimp
Made-to-order rice noodle sheets with minced pork and steamed pork loaf
Spring Rolls with BBQ/Grilled beef
Simmered Shrimp and Pork combo (Rice plate)
Banh Mi Dac Biet- House Special Banh Mi sandwich
Cold Noodle Bowl with sour pork and grilled shrimp
re: Erik M
Thanks for the recommendations. I generally stick to banh mi at Pho 888, along with their dry noodle bowls. You've given me several things to try. I really like their cold cuts and their grilled pork banh mi is awesome. Their bread is fantastic. The one exception in my experience is their tofu sandwich; flavorless and the texture of the tofu was tough and unpleasant.
I'm fascinated by the rice noodle sheets dish and that will be my next purchase.
When I lived in NYC, I used to go regularly to a Viet "appetizer shop" called Pho Bhang, on Mott St. (It's since burned down.) They had a series of dishes like grilled beef and pork, served with tiny squares of noodles, obviously cut from a sheet, which were rolled up in lettuce. I've never seen those noodles since, but they were addictive. Perhaps this is similar.
I've been meaning to try Tank, but I like the people at Pho 888 so much I rarely get past there, except to the grocery and sometimes Ha Yien.
I'm printing out your post for reference next weekend.