Serious Eats: Chicago
Lunch in the Loop: Ba Le Lands in the Loop
Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
First off, everybody, Happy New Year! We made it! Well, I barely made it. I hope you guys aren't too hungover. I also hope your shenanigans were amazing, so that you may regale me with tales of pantsless and drunken glory, for those are the best stories. May your New Year be happy, healthy, and bright, and may you all grow rich. Then, please give me all that money. No, seriously. Give me your money!
In the meantime, now that we're all grumbling and back at the office, we can at least take solace in good lunches while we despair at our desks. I am happy to report, however, that there is now another place that offers bánh mì in the Loop, bringing the total number of places to two. Good job, downtown Chicago. Good job. And this new place? It's Ba Le! For those of you who aren't familiar, they also have an outpost in Uptown and one in Chinatown, and lots of people enjoy their delicious Vietnamese sandwiches.
When you're at the front counter, it's hard not to notice this two-tailed specimen, which looks like two shrimp stuck in a Chinese finger trap. It is, of course, a shrimp roll ($2.65). It's not terribly big, but it definitely hits the spot as a snack or a crunchy side. The thin crackly shell is almost entirely filled with whole shrimp, aside from a bit of taro root and noodles, which are hard to notice. Otherwise, if you like shrimp, it's a good snack.
For me, it's hard to eat Vietnamese or Thai food without at least a side of papaya salad, and in Ba Le's case, it's a vegan papaya salad ($7.95) that's big enough to make a meal in and of itself. It's fresh and crunchy with noodle-cut papaya and bits of fried tofu, with peanuts served in a little cup for you to sprinkle on as you please. It's also tart from lime juice and salty and savory from the dressing. If you're eating with friends or coworkers, it's big enough to share with at least three or four people as a side.
And of course, there are the sandwiches. My favorite is the classic special ($5.95), which is layered with pate, ham, headcheese, and pork roll. The pate has that strong, iron-like liver flavor (it is liver, after all), and the sliced meats add up to a hammy, porky, and satisfying sandwich. It's all complimented with the sweet pickled daikon radish and carrot, and is served on a crackly, airy baguette that makes bánh mì so unique.
The roast pork banh mi ($5.95) is a subtle sandwich. The roast pork portion is pork belly, and it's also layered with the same pate as the special. The pale pork belly doesn't seem like much at first, but once the flavor settles in your mouth, the porky taste really does come out to play. Again, with the addictive bites of pickled vegetables and the crackly bread, this is also a satisfying sandwich.
I'm most intrigued by the pork shrimp cake bánh mì ($6.25). This spongy meat cake sandwich has the distinct flavor of both pork and shrimp melded together. It's interesting that you can taste both the pork and shrimp mixed into the same substance. Would I order it again? I'm not sure. It's definitely worth a try if you're curious.
My vegetarian friends really love bánh mì because the vegetarian options don't seem like an afterthought. There's a veggie avocado option, and a lemongrass tofu option, but my coworker opted for a custom-made tofu banh mi ($5.95) with the fried tofu instead. The tofu is a little rubbery, chewy, and unseasoned, but with the pickled vegetables it ends up being just fine.
Just earlier last year I lamented the fact that we really don't have too many bánh mì options in downtown Chicago, but it looks like I got one of my New Year's wishes.
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.