Before the opening of Nhu Lan Bakery
over on a lonely stretch of Lawrence Avenue, the go-to place for the Vietnamese
sandwich specialty known as bahn mi was Ba Le, just off the Argyle Red Line
stop near the host of other Vietnamese, Chinese
places that make up the "Chinatown North" or "Little Vietnam" section of Uptown
Sure, you could get a bahn mi at places like Tank Noodle, but they were an afterthought to their steaming bowls of pho. Only Ba Le could at that point provide a fresh baked baguette, packed with fresh vegetables like cilantro and onion, meats like pork, pate or chicken, and spicy chilis, all which come together in a sandwich rarely found around town.
Now that there are other options out there (besides Nhu Lan, bahn mi are also available at the new French Market by Ogilvie Station), the competition has only reinvigorated Ba Le. It offers more varieties of sandwiches such as sardine, roasted pork, roast beef and veggie avocado, complemented by spring rolls and other appetizers. Ba Le also has its own branded goods like its own line of baguettes, ham and head cheese, as well as a variety of prepackaged beverages the likes of which are rarely seen by American eyes. It's cheap, too - just a few bucks per sandwich and the place still offers the "buy 5 get one free" deal that can basically take care of your lunch for a week.
Keep in mind that if you're still going to the old Ba Le location, you're going to be a little disoriented. They've recently relocated just a few steps south to a gleaming silver space-age version of the old area with expanded seating and more space to hold sticky rice, sausages, spring and pork rolls, buns and baguettes. The house-branded pates and meatstuffs now hide in a cooler next to a variety of drinks, while the selection of sandwiches continue to be made fresh to order.
The service tends to be hit or miss, with you more likely to be clearing away the last person's mess than they are should you choose to dine in, but the option to stay and enjoy a warm sandwich at the counter or on the patio is worth the occasional bit of extra elbow grease.
Average cost: <$10
Centerstage Reviewer: Karl Klockars