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A Better Banh Mi

Ba Le steps up its game. Plus: Topolobampo's new competition and a gastropub that should drop the gastro.

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A couple years ago Ravenswood upstart Nhu Lan Bakery snatched banh mi supremacy away from this venerable Vietnamese bakery, but Ba Le Sandwich Shop continued to thrive, benefiting from a prime location—albeit in a dark, cramped space—at the mouth of Little Saigon. Now, since moving one door south in April into the roomier confines vacated by Thai Grocery, Ba Le has not only stepped up its sandwich assembly but expanded its menu offerings in a bright, modish space with plenty of indoor seating, a patio, and even a tight parking lot overseen on weekends by a cheerful but incongruous rent-a-cop. Also new: the rather stupendous claim on its annoying Flash site that bakery founder Le Vo invented the miraculous Franco-Vietnamese sandwich in Saigon in the 50s.

One thing is indubitable: Ba Le's banh mi are now much fresher, made to order on a brisk, efficient line. (Previously they were often preassembled far enough in advance that their symphonic magic faded.) The vegetables are crunchier, the meats are colder or warmer as appropriate, and the bread crackles to the tooth. They're still a bit understuffed compared to their betters at Nhu Lan, but the improvements are significant.

Tapioca fruit smoothies come in interesting tropical flavors such as durian, jackfruit, or sapote, and milky iced coffee is sweet rocket fuel dripped to order. Large selections of sweet and savory pastries, fried spring rolls, shrimp cakes, and sausages crowd the counter, along with weighty bowls of rice vermicelli, meat salads, and composed portions of xoi, sticky rice snacks packaged plain, with chicken legs, pork roll, and vegetables, or flavored with pandan leaf or coconut.

In the bank of refrigerated cases, tubes of the house-branded patés, headcheese, and other charcuterie are lined up next to a selection of the layered sweet puddings known as che—perhaps custard or coconut milk dotted with mung beans and other legumes, basil seeds, Jell-O bits, tapioca, longans, or jujubes. It was once possible to ignore these incidental offerings and escape with a half dozen satisfying sandwiches at a shockingly reasonable price, but the new array of little snacks and sweets and extra dishes is so irresistible that it's a challenge to leave Ba Le without blowing a sizable wad of dough. —Mike Sula

We barely suppressed our smirks when our server confided that the only restaurant in Chicago that could compete with Chilapan was Topolobampo. Oh, reeeally? As the food, by chef Jorge Miranda (Las Palmas, Adobo Grill), started to arrive, however, we grew humbler. The Empanada Potosina, corn masa flecked with guajillo chiles and stuffed with queso panela, was airy and delicate, a far cry from Argentina's breadier empanadas. This light touch carried through all our other dishes: the chayote and tomato in a green salad were sculpted into small shells and dabbed with fresh, flavorful guajillo-sherry vinaigrette. Budin Azteca was a layered casserole of feathery, flaky tortillas with chicken, cheese, and a poblano cream salsa—a kind of vertical enchilada, deliciously crusty and, again, unexpectedly light.

Several dishes—including terrifically tender and tasty rolled skirt steak—incorporated the same lightly sauteed spinach, but sampling over half a dozen salsas in various preparations, we were wowed by the range; tastes were intense but never stupidly spicy, and the chile-based sauces tingled the palate without overwhelming it, enabling the distinctive personality of each pepper to pop. The focused, inventive menu has veggie and sometimes vegan options as well as a provocative caboose of desserts, including flavor-dense fruit sorbets made locally using the chef's recipes. Housed in the former Tamalli space, hard by the Blue Line stop at Western, Chilapan is intimate, and though eating with the train rumbling by can sometimes feel like you're picnicking on Popocatépetl, the vibe inside is mellow and the service exceptional. Plus, it's BYO with no corkage fee. —David Hammond

Naming a pub for the joyless writing of an overhyped misanthrope who's fueled the smug superiority of countless college freshmen: that could be polarizing. So could pairing joyless, half-assed gastrocliches with a deep crafty draft beer list. Overseen by former Sheffield's beer geek Phil Kuhl, the on-tap offerings at Fountainhead are complemented by an equally impressive list of whiskeys from around the world. But the menu of edibles is short and unbalanced, with a mere six entrees, three of which are some version of dry, mushy mac 'n' cheese.

One of the few other options, a trio of superfatty local Chef Martin brand sausages, is delivered with dull sliced beer hall radishes (um, radishes?) and a scoop of cheese that I might have enjoyed had there been something to spread it on besides brick-hard stale black bread. Such things simply die in the details: a sliced pork shoulder sandwich whose Scotch-ale braise waterlogs the toasted sourdough bread; a tough slab of pork belly, with mustard and slaw delivering only glancing blows to the thick, dead bread it's served on; McDonald's-caliber shoestring frites; a dry, underseasoned burger, so perfectly formed it looks stamped from a machine. My best bite here was an unexpectedly adequate entree-size shrimp diablo appetizer with five fat butterflied prawns, just a hair overdone, in a spicy white-ale broth.

It's clear the priorities in this dark but spacious corner tavern are behind the bar. You'd be wise to focus your attention there too. —Mike Sula

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