The Winners!#1: Ba Le
It didn't take me long to fall in love with the bánh mì. Actually, it took approximately one bite. What appeared as a relatively normal looking sandwich on a French baguette, turned out to be anything but. First off, that bread crackled and shattered when I touched it, which I learned later came from the addition of rice flour. Second came the fillings, which were fatty, funky, and assertive—miles away from bland cold cuts I grew up on. And finally, a whole mess of crunchy, pickled toppings added a fresh and sharp counterpoint, dramatically lightening up the load. It was unlike any sandwich I'd ever eaten, and I've been hooked ever since.
But when it comes to bánh mì in Chicago, I have to admit that I've been in a holding pattern. I thought I knew all there was to know about the sandwich, and after I found a couple places I liked, I mindlessly returned to those spots to fulfill my craving. But in the past few years, a number of new places have opened, hoping to appeal to the sandwich's growing fan base. I decided to sample the scene, to see if there was anything I was missing.
It's only when you line a bunch of bánh mìs up that certain details start to pop up, and ingredients that never seemed that important suddenly come into focus. For me, the biggest eye opener had to do with the bread. I assumed that if it was made with rice flour, then that was good enough. But size is also important, and if it is too thick, the sandwich tastes dry. Also, I never realized how crucial the pâté was to the whole.
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You can find bánh mìs all over Chicago, from traditional shops to restaurants with bánh mì-esque sandwiches—ones that take a thing a or two from the original and add a twist. I knew there was no way to reasonably compare such wildly different versions, so I settled on only trying places that served a classic đặc biệt bánh mì. Sometimes it was just called a "classic" or "signature" bánh mì, but the fillings are basically the same.
Here's the list (in alphabetical order):
- 2 Asian Brothers
- Ba Le
- Bánh Mì & Co.
- Bánh Mì Express Sandwiches
- Bun Mi Express
- Bon Bon Sandwiches
- Nhu Lan
- Saigon Sisters
The most distinguishing feature of a bánh mì is the careful balance of three components:
The Bread (10 points): Unlike just about every other sandwich in the world, a bánh mì uses bread made with a mixture of rice and wheat flour, resulting in a loaf that might look like a French baguette, but has a unique crackly crust. It should be light and not too thick. Like all bread, it's best when fresh and warm.
The Main Ingredient(s) (10 points): In going with the classic đặc biệt bánh mì, I was looking for three fillings in particular: sliced ham, head cheese, and pâté. Each is flavorful enough to carry the sandwich on its own, but if carefully layered, they combine to form a salty, fatty, funky filling that is truly unique. Of course, I feel a little conflicted about only writing about the classic đặc biệt, especially since most places have a range of delicious options. But the đặc biệt is the original, and if a place can nail this, I'd trust the other fillings as well.
The Vegetables and Condiments (5 points): After all that fatty meat, you need some balance. That job is left to the pickled carrots and daikon radishes, which should be crunchy and just a little sweet. Rounding things out should be cooling cucumber, fragrant cilantro, and spicy chile slices. For condiments, I was looking for a combination of mayonnaise and butter, which prevents the sandwich from tasting dry.
The Winner: Ba Le
I was hoping to find a clear winner, one that trumped over all the competition. Instead, it ended up being a very close race, one where I really had to scrutinize the elements to declare a winner. Though three of the sandwiches vied for the top spot with particularly strong elements, Ba Le stood out for doing the most things well. The bread is thin and crackly, the fillings are flavorful and well proportioned, and the toppings are vibrant and crunchy. I should note that Saigon Sisters and Bánh Mì & Co. were very close, but if there was just one bánh mì I could eat in Chicago, it'd have to be from Ba Le.
For a full breakdown of the lineup, click through the slideshow above.