Ba Le (French-Vietnamese Café, Uptown)
I realize with increasing frequency that so much of the joy in my life comes by way of happy accidents. So I suppose it was no surprise that an impromptu lunch date—so impromptu, in fact, that I was wearing the shirt I had slept in the night before—turned out to introduce me to a new favorite restaurant in this wonderful city.
A few months ago, I wrote about the wonderful pan-Asian community surrounding the Argyle Red Line station. The area boasts Chinese, Thai, Japanese, and Cambodian fare, and today I stumbled upon French-Vietnamese at Ba Le, a café housing some of the most striking flavors in the city inside a sleek and modern storefront.
Like all good food, the grub at Ba Le has a great story to sink your teeth into. In the 1950s, a man in Vietnam named Le Vo sold smoothies from a stand he put together from found pieces of wood. That’s right. He found pieces of wood and started making smoothies underneath them. Soon, the word got out that Vo blended a great smoothie. Sandwiches followed. Vo took his culinary cues from authentic Vietnamese cuisine but also French, as they were occupying Vietnam at the time. The sandwiches, banh mi, were a hit, and Saigon gobbled them up until 1972 when Vo fled his country to escape the war.
Flash forward ten years and we find Vo in San Jose, CA. He opened Ba Le Bakery there in 1982, with a Chicago location following in 1989. Chicago is now Ba Le headquarters as Vo’s children continue to spread the banh mi love around the U.S.
Now, more than 20 years later, not even a week after Snow-torious B.I.G. rocked Chicago’s socks, and I am in my pajamas, staring at the salty footprints, both dog and human, on my hardwood floors, remembering that scholarship I turned down to study at Florida State when I was eighteen. I am torturing myself by shopping for sundresses online and thinking about the dog park and drinking a 312 by the lake. My phone rings and a last-minute lunch date is proposed. I almost said no. I really did. But I shoved my dry feet into my wet boots and ventured out, if for no other reason than to avoid mopping the messy floors.
Our destination was Ba Le, a place I’ve been meaning to try for almost a year now. As we approached, we noticed crowds standing along Argyle and a float negotiating the snow. A small Chinese New Year parade was taking place, the smell of sulfur in the air and red paper stuck in the snow were evidence of a confetti cannon just erupted. Ba Le was just as festive. Children stuffed into snowsuits stared at the dessert case almost as longingly as I did, and the employees made suggestions to those of us uninitiated. Buy three fruit tarts and get one free? Yes, please. Our selections were mixed fruit, pineapple, and guava. They consisted of a creamy custard with a flavor light enough to delight but not overwhelm, topped with raspberries, kiwi slices, and blueberries. We followed dessert with our lunch, the BBQ Pork sandwich. The understated flavor continued here. While Chicagoans think of a bold, messy sauce, the BBQ banh mi was just sweet enough, just moist enough, so that the other ingredients could shine. Cilantro, jalapenos, carrots, and all surrounded by a perfect, and I mean perfect, French baguette. Crunchy yet easily masticated flaky goodness. Oh god.
We washed down our meal with soft drinks from France, “Berry Lemonade” and “Sparkling Apple Cider.” Now, I’m going to say the next part slowly so all of us Americans will understand, because I’m still having trouble myself. There were no chemicals in the sodas. What I’m saying is, I could pronounce all of the ingredients. I knew what they all were. Furthermore, the first ingredient was carbonated water, and high fructose corn syrup was not to be found in the list of four ingredients. Try that with a Pepsi.
Actually, don’t. Don’t try anything with any American sandwich, pastry, or soda until you’ve tried it with a French-Vietnamese delicacy. This is your top priority. Get to Ba Le. It will cure your cabin fever and keep you motivated in the coming months, as they just rolled out a “Buy Five Sandwiches, Get One Free” punch card. On your mark, get set, banh mi.
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