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. 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. On 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. Delectable 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. 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. 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. Maybe 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.