Saturday, September 8, 2012
Up until about 2 years ago, I wasn't familiar with the term "banh mi". I had an inkling that it was some sort of exotic foodstuff from Southeast Asia, but wouldn't have recognized one if it fell out of the sky and crash landed onto my lapel. Since then, as I read more about these sorts of things, I came to realize that it's not so exotic after all. It's a sandwich. From Vietnam. Think Subway, just a whole lot more interesting. The words "banh mi" actually translate in Vietnamese to mean bread, but after the French introduced the baguette along with some of their finer cold cuts (such as pate) during the colonial occupation, someone got the bright idea to combine these Gallic treats with local ingredients (like pickled vegetables and cilantro) to create a wholly unique sandwich (which is now collectively called banh mi). In Chicago, we have a sizable Vietnamese diaspora (especially in Uptown), and those who are in the know direct fans of the banh mi to what many believe is our humble city's best version, at Ba Le (5014 N. Broadway). It was there that I found myself recently, looking to enjoy my very first banh mi in the company of some visitors from Kansas City.
When you first walk in, you'd be hard pressed to distinguish the joint from any Quizno's in Everytown, USA. The first clue that this is not an average sub shop can be gleaned from glancing through the coolers to the left of the counter, which are filled with all manner of to-go Vietnamese meats, drinks, soup, salads, and some unidentifiable gelatinous substances in clear containers (I'm pretty sure they weren't Jell-o). The other tipoff is the menu above the counter listing the many varieties of sandwich fillings available, including, but not limited to, beef rib eye, sardines, meatball, bbq pork, lemongrass pork, and sauteed shrimp. I opted for something called pork shrimp cake and was not the least bit disappointed. Texturally speaking, there is no question in my mind that the Ba Le banh mi is the undisputed champion of all sandwiches. The housemade rolls were crunchy on the outside (take a bite and crumbs cascade everywhere like confetti) and ethereal (almost hollow) on the inside, better than any Paris baguette I can recall having. The meat was tender and rich, perfectly offset by the pickled daikon radish, carrots, onions, cilantro, jalapenos, soy sauce, and mayo. If one complaint was to be had, it would be that the jalapenos were a tad too ever-present and potent, but, by and large, this was a most satisfying lunch experience, one I could see myself repeating daily if I happened to work or live nearby (an incredible value at $4.50 to boot).
Switching civilizations, my guests and I made our way down Halsted Street all the way to Greektown, stopping at a place recommended by Serious Eats Chicago (my latest and greatest foodie muse) for dessert. Artopolis (306 S. Halsted) is a dapper cafe and bakery selling traditional Greek kitchen items, liquor, fancy cakes, wood-burning oven pizza, and other goodies, one of which (the galactoboureko, sort of a Greek version of bread pudding) was singled out for positive press on Serious Eats. As we sat down in the bakery and ordered our desserts, I realized that I'd been here many years before, probably for lunch with co-workers (back in 2000, I briefly worked in this part of the West Loop). My slice of galacto-whatever arrived at the table looking and tasting unctuous (see photo above), sweet lemon custard sandwiched between layers of phyllo dough and topped with a sticky orange blossom syrup. It's rare for me to crave non-chocolate sweets, but this is a dish I could get used to finding in a pan at the back of the fridge at 3 am (not that that could actually happen here as there are no Greeks in the vicinity of the Commissary)...