Wild Side: From Head to Foot at Ba Le in Uptown
Editor's Note:While we're all familiar with the usual dishes around Chicago like pizza and Italian beef, there's a whole world of adventurous food in Chicago from bugs to offal. Dennis is ready to explore the wild side of the dining scene.
Here on Serious Eats Chicago, we do go back to favorites and cover them multiple times. Ba Le is no exception. The bánh mì is exceptional, from the crackly and airy bread down to the balanced fillings and sweet pickled vegetables. Personally, I try to expand my horizons by not revisiting places too many times. But a friend of mine posted a peculiar picture of pickled chicken feet on Facebook. Out of curiosity, I asked him where he found them. The answer? Ba Le in Uptown.
When I covered Ba Le previously, it was for Lunch in the Loop. I pretty much had the sandwiches and that was about it. But when I visited Ba Le in Uptown out of sheer curiosity about those chicken feet, you should have seen my face. It was like, whoa. I know, I'm really articulate. Turns out I don't like chan ga lam chua ($4.95). They are chewy, cold, sweet, and vinegary. There's surprisingly a lot of chicken flavor, almost to the point of being gamy, but not much meat, as you can tell. It's just rubbery skin and a little bit of connective tissue. I do like the hot spicy Chinese version of chicken feet a lot better.
Rooting around their refrigerated section some more, I found a lot of gems, including the head cheese ($5.95). You know it's serious business when the first ingredient listed is pork snout. It's chewy, salty, and porky with whole black peppercorns tossed in for bright temporary heat. There's an ever-so-faint flavor of star anise and cinnamon, too. I made a sandwich with it for lunch today. Mmm, piggy noses.
Pork pate ($3.95 for 9 oz) is a standard spread on the classic bánh mì combination of ham (or pork belly), head cheese, pickled vegetables, sliced jalapeños, and mayo. It's a little on the crumbly side and isn't too livery or funky, and I've been happily munching on it with bread today as a snack. For those who are a little afraid of liver, this can be your gateway. If you don't like it, you can yell at me later, after which I will cry disappointed man-tears in the corner.
On the sandwich menu I noticed some interesting fillings for the bánh mì, which I'd previously missed. This includes the sardine banh mi ($4.95). The sardines aren't anything special; they're more or less straight from the can, tossed onto the sandwich with the usual suspects, but you know what? They work pretty well! Canned sardines are rich with oil and soft to the bite, so the pickled vegetables come into play immediately with their crisp vinegary sweetness. And that crackly bread just makes the sandwich unique.
I'm as big a fan of the pork skin bánh mì ($4.25). The tiny chewy strips of skin aren't a very substantial filling and don't lend very much flavor to a bite of the sandwich.
I've never had a Vietnamese dessert before, so my foray into the basil seeds with jackfruit ($2.25) is completely new. When soaked, basil seeds create a little jelly coating around each individual seed. It's pretty cool. But the flavor of this dessert is very musky, a little mildewy, and distinct in a way I've never experienced. I want to like this dessert better, but I'm still struggling with the taste a little.
Having such a new experience at a place I've been to multiple times has made me wonder what else I've missed. Where the hell have I been? Well, I know the answer to that question already: I've been at home, pantsless, playing Grand Theft Auto V. Don't you all come running to my front door all at once now, ladies.
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.