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Un-Ba-Le-Vable Flavors

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Welcome one and all to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Things on my blog have been picking up as of late since I’ve survived my first semester teaching in upper academia, so these posts are keeping me sane in the flurry of bureaucracy and final exam writing.  I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I like writing them!  Today’s post once again brings me to Chicago’s Uptown Little Vietnam neighborhood.  It’s a diverse enclave of Chicago’s ethnic rainbow which boasts a plethora of eateries serving a wide variety of foods from Far East and Southeast Asia.  However, the Vietnamese community is the largest; ergo, I’ve sampled just the tip of the pho iceberg when it comes to fully exploring their culinary representatives.  Ba Le Sandwich shop is one of the best and most popular eateries in the area, and my first visit there was fantastic.

Ba Le’s storefront is at the heart of Little Vietnam at the intersection of Argyle and Broadway and opposite the iconic Tank Noodle where you can get some hot pho soup to chase this newly arrived cold weather away.IMG_4846  Walking into the establishment, past the small Buddhist shrine at the entrance, I was greeted with a sleek and modern interior that boasted a full wall of treats like freshly cut coconuts, Vietnamese head cheese or giò thủ , and a large vareity of chè or sweet pudding/jello treats.  IMG_4217IMG_4212 IMG_4214 IMG_4213On the right hand side of the shop, there were sushi roll packs next to a mini French bakery that was bursting at the seams with macaron mini-mountains.  IMG_4216Delectable remnants of the French colonization of Indochina as they were, I was interested in something more substantial and what Ba Le is known for:  banh mi.  If you want a historical explanation of the sandwich, hit up my Portland food truck adventure here.  Looking over the menu, they also offered side dishes like the famous gỏi cuốn translucent shrimp rolls, noodle salads, fried rice, and egg rolls.  As for the banh mi sandwiches, I went for the Chinese Pork or xá xíu ($4.95), and they do cater to vegetarians with banh mi, btw!   The sandwich was quite big for the price as I took it to one of Ba Le’s window counters you can eat at while watching the locals go about their daily business.  I wasn’t doing much people watching because I was severely distracted and gobsmacked at how delicious this sandwich was.IMG_4218  It was the culinary equivalent of Saul, future St. Paul, being knocked off his horse and converting to Christianity after hearing the voice of God. Oh_Lawd___by_deadprez132001 I don’t know what it was that made this sandwich stand out from the thousands of other sandwiches I tried.  Perhaps it was the extremely fresh French baguette that was just the right ratio of crispness to softness.  IMG_4220Maybe my weakness for mayonnaise combined with the fresh-from-the-garden cilantro, jalapeno peppers, daikon radish, onions, and carrots.  I think the pork helped as well since it was served in the char siu (叉燒) style which originates in China.  It is basically barbecued pork that is roasted while being coated with honey, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, and five spice powder.  What you get is a tender cut of pork that is both sweet and slightly salty, a perfect fauna compliment to the unspoiled flora of my unwrapped Garden of Eden.  Long story short, it was ecstasy in my mouth, and it wasn’t very heavy compared to many Western sub sandwiches.

So if you want a heavenly bite of Vietnamese culture for hellishly low prices, check out Ba Le Sandwich Shop in Chicago!
Ba Le Sandwich Shop on Urbanspoon

The Heart and Seoul of Chicago

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안녕하세요! or Hello! to everyone out there on the interwebz!  Welcome to another wonderful edition of Mastication Monologues where I bring you the best, most delicious, and/or intriguing eats I find as I walk down this path called life.  Today’s edition relates to the greeting in the funny looking writing at the beginning of the post.  If you’re not familiar with Asian scripts, I wrote in the Korean writing system known as Hangul.  It’s a relatively new writing system compared to the Roman alphabet or Arabic, but it is ingenious in its design compliments of King Sejong who invented said alphabet back in 1443.  Each symbol relates to how the different components of the human mouth are positioned to make each sound.  If I had to choose a sound to accurately describe how I felt after eating at Korean fusion BBQ joint Del Seoul in Chicago, I’d probably say ㅁㅁㅁㅁㅁㅁㅁㅁ(mmmmmmmmm).  

I met up with my friend, Heidi, yesterday since we recently came back from a year in Korea together.  While we were both happy to be back in the good old USA, it felt only fitting that we caught up on things over the food that we tried throughout our adventures in the Land of the Morning Calm.  I was a bit surprised to find it in the neighborhood by DePaul and not in Koreatown, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying my dining experience from beginning to end.IMG_3090  Upon walking in, I was surprised to find the place was kind of like a Far East Asian Chipotle where you have to order your food and then sit down at a table with a number.IMG_3097  Looking over the menu, I could see that it wasn’t quite the Korean cornucopia I was expecting.  While they did have some classics I’ve enjoyed like 비빔밥 (bibimbap; mixed vegetables and rice bowl), 김치볶음밥 (kimchibokkeumbap; fried rice with kimchi), and the ubiquitous 김치 (kimchi; pickled cabbage), they were missing other common dishes like 떡볶이 (tteokbokki; rice cakes in spicy sauce) and 잡채 (chapchae; translucent fried noodles).  Instead, they were replaced with Korean fusion treats like tacos, banh mi, and kimchi poutine.  I wanted to try a bit of everything, so I got the following:  a 갈비 (galbi; bbq beef ribs) taco ($2.95), a spicy bbq pork banh mi ($6.25), and a small cup of kimchi ($1.50) since I love my pickled vegetables.  

As we sat down, I had trouble finding an open table since the place was hopping with patrons greedily devouring their dishes.  The owners also provide complimentary soy sauce and spicy Sriracha sauce to jazz up your selections which wouldn’t normally happen in Korea.  Our tacos came out first, and they were a lot smaller than I was anticipating. IMG_3092I would liken it to the side of a large English muffin, but what it lacked in size it made up with bold flavors.  Not only was the beef expertly grilled and seasoned, but the cilantro-onion relish combined with the secret slaw brought in a slightly herbal yet semi-spicy punch to this south of the DMZ border fusion dish.  I would definitely recommend getting the tacos.  Next came the Vietnamese banh mi sandwich with Korean ingredients. IMG_3095 I loved the jalapeno pepper slices and the juicy pork pieces that were simmered in a Korean gochujang (hot pepper sauce) marinade.  What I didn’t love were the pickled daikon radish strands and the extremely fresh bread used to bring all of the great ingredients together.  The radish took a lot away from the other elements with its overpowering pickled flavor which I didn’t appreciate.  As for the bread, you might think I’m crazy for ragging on the crunchy yet chewy loaves used to make scrumptious banh mi, but in this case, I felt it was too much bread for too little ingredients.IMG_3096  While I do love carbo loading when I’m not going to run a marathon, I felt this was a case of going buck wild with the baguette to the loss of the other ingredients.  I tried a bit of Heidi’s 불고기 (bulgogi; bbq beef) sandwich, and it was the same deal.  Too much dough stopping the other ingredients’ flow.  These sandwiches weren’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination and a better value for the price compared to the tacos, but the tacos were more finger-licking good.  Then there was the kimchi.  Kimchi flows through the blood of every Korean, and it is the be all end all of foods for them…and me and my friend, Meropi.  There is even a special time of the year where Koreans gather as a family to prepare the kimchi for fermentation for the winter.  That’s how highly Korean regard this fiber-tastic but not vegetarian friendly delicacy.  While there are many different types of kimchi, the most popular is the spicy kimchi that consists of pickled cabbage and chili sauce.  I shocked my Korean coteachers every lunchtime with how much of the fermented vegetables I’d pile on my food tray, but it made up for a lot of the other options that had tentacles sticking out of it.  After so many days of eating the cabbage, I really came to love it, so I wanted to see if Del Seoul’s could match up to the motherland’s special blend of spices.  From the first delicious chopstickful, I was taken back to the land where I was complimented on my chopstick skills and scolded for mixing other foodstuffs with my bland white rice.

Kimchi just chillin in the corner

Kimchi just chillin in the corner

  Long story short, it was the real deal, and I’m sure that I will always remember my adventures in the East when I savor this much maligned food in the West.

Overall, I’d recommend Del Seoul to anyone who’s a little wary of jumping tastebuds-first into Korean cuisine or those who want to experience certain Korean classics reinvented through fusion food.  The prices aren’t overwhelming, and the environment is simple and welcoming.

Del Seoul on Urbanspoon

 

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