Ba Le Makes a Decent Banh Mi (Sandwich), But Who Makes it Better?

With the upcoming August-ish opening of Ba Le’s newest sandwich shop in Chinatown, I figured it was time to do a post on Ba Le. AND! To ask readers where one can find a better banh mi. For the time being, let’s focus on on Ba Le. At one time, the Argyle neighborhood that houses Ba Le was very sketchy and was not a desirable location for businesses. Fast forward to the present and you’ll find that Ba Le is one of those neighborhood institutions that have flourished over the years, despite the neighborhood’s struggles with blight and growth.

Image taken from Uptown Update

Some months ago, or even perhaps a year ago (don’t remember), Ba Le underwent renovation and moved to a completely new and finessed location. The new store front was literally next door. The old space used to be an old school Asian grocery store, but the owner retired and the space was left empty until Ba Le moved in, improving and adding additional space to it.

Interior

Now the space is open and spacious, with additions to its food repertoire.

Counter

With the kitchen space expanded, updated menus and added dessert case, there’s a lot of new items to look at.

Desserts

Here’s a better look at the new desserts. Anyone try them? I’m curious to see how they stack up against other bakeries. They look quite pretty, don’t you think?

Ba Le Special

When Ba Le open its new location some time ago, I was really excited. New store, new food stuffs, more selection to choose from = more food porn for me. I ordered two sandwiches. Here’s the Ba Le Special #1, described as “Original Saigon-style combination of pate, ham, headcheese, and pork roll.” I usually order the #1 as it’s my favorite, but this particular sandwich threw me off. All I could think of was, “What happened? Why is the filling in my sandwich packed oddly? Did they change employees? Doesn’t taste like what it usually tastes like… hmmm… ” Not the best Ba Le special banh mi.

Lemongrass Pork

The other sandwich was the lemongrass pork which Ba Le describes as a sandwich made with “flavorful pork and lemongrass sausage.” Redundant? Yes. But it walks the walk. The sausage was indeed flavorful, but again, the packing of the sandwich filling was weird and not what it used to be, pre-move style. I really hoped it was because they recently moved and working out the kinks. Because of this experience, I stayed away from Ba Le, as I wasn’t sure what to make of their mediocre sandwiches.

Dessert deal

They also had bakery goods that I had not seen at the old shop and to boot, they even offered a deal! It was like they knew I was visiting, I love a combo deal.

Blueberry Croissant

Snagged a blueberry croissant. General consensus among BE, Diner A and myself: It’s okaaay. Not that great.

Chocolate Croissant

Chocolate croissant: needs more chocolate. But isn’t it the case for all chocolate croissants? MOAR CHOCOLATE NAO.

Almond Croissant

Next up, almond croissant. Verdict? Better than the blueberry croissant. Preferable. More almond filling plox.

BBQ Pork Banh Mi

In a way more recent visit to Ba Le (July 2011), we ordered banh mi again. Crossing our fingers, we ate our sandwiches. Diner A ordered the bbq pork banh mi, as Ba Le describes as “thinly sliced grilled pork with lemongrass marinated in house sauce.” Diner A was satisfied. I thought the bbq pork was pretty decent and BE didn’t care for it.

Pork shrimp cake banh mi

BE was busy scarfing down the pork shrimp cake banh mi, as Be Le describes as “traditional Hue-style sliced pork/shrimp/prawn paste cake.” BE liked this sandwich, thought it was solid and devoured it very quickly. It’s the kind of sandwich that most pork-shrimp eaters would like and eat. A solid choice.

Ba Le Special

And back to the Ba Le special sandwich, my go to banh mi. Described as “original Saigon-style combination of pate, ham, headcheese, and pork roll.” The sandwich was much better than last time, though, there was a general consensus between BE and I that the quality of the sandwiches went down. The sandwiches weren’t as tasty as they used to be and there was much less pickled vegetable filling. So if I had to rank Ba Le in some way, it would’ve been a 9 in pre-move, 5 in moving and 7 in the most recent visit. Either way, Ba Le (has attempted to) set a standard in Chicago banh mi and as a result, they’re expanding into Chinatown because people can’t get enough of them.

BUT! I’m curious to hear what people have to say about other places that make banh mi. Who does it better? I’ve heard that Nhu Lan Bakery gives Ba Le and run for their money, but who else?

P.S. – Ba Le has a Buy 5 sandwiches, get 1 free deal. I’ve done this myself and the cheapest one is usually free. So if you’re going to a party, this might be a great thing to bring! They even cut my sandwiches in half as requested. 🙂

Ba Le Sandwich/Bakery Shop
5016 N Broadway St
Chicago, IL 60640
(773) 561-4424
http://www.balesandwich.com

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