Ba Le Sandwich: Take that, fusion haters
In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop....
All photos by Mark Antonation
A banh mi is the ultimate argument to silence detractors of fusion cuisine: a paper-wrapped torpedo straight into the mouth of purist snobbery and closed-minded opinionating. Combining the foods of two different cultures doesn't have to be intellectual, fussy or ill-conceived. A simple combination of ingredients on hand -- the marriage of necessity and convenience -- can become something powerful, iconic and, most of all, ridiculously delicious. I ate banh mi from Ba Le Sandwich for three meals in a row on a recent weekend, not for the purposes of research or to adhere to some food-writer code of ethics, but because once those crusty baguette sandwiches entered my mind, I couldn't vanquish their presence until I'd chomped my way through the majority of Ba Le's menu and evangelized to anyone available with proffered bites and explanations of the alchemy encapsulated within. In short, I was feeding my banh mi obsession.
Sandwiches can generally be lumped into two categories: sloppy or tidy. In the sloppy camp, you've got the intentionally flamboyant Mexican torta, with all the restraint of a college-cafeteria food fight; the seemingly proper croque madame, which appears tidy yet requires a plate, silverware and impeccable table manners if you're going to walk away unstained by yolk or butter; and the Chicago Italian beef -- the sandwich that prompted the invention of the pressure washer.
On the other side, you'll find dainty tea sandwiches that barely even belong in this conversation, fast-food burgers packaged to be eaten while driving, and the deceptively polite banh mi, which may dangle a tendril or two of cilantro but rarely becomes tawdry enough to reveal its savory contents until you bite into it. Ba Le's sandwiches fit this description. They're immaculate parcels meant for consumption on the move -- or at least in places where posh amenities like finger bowls, wet wipes and shower stalls are not standard, maybe slipped into a pocket for later noshing or thrown into a backpack for a snack at the end of a hike.
Tucked between palate-shredding baguette halves lurks an addictive and refreshing salad of shredded carrots, daikon, cucumber and cilantro -- all lightly anointed with a sweet-tart vinaigrette that enhances the crunch and flavor of the veggies without saturating the bread. Thin-sliced jalapeños add just a hint of raw aggression to the mix, but Ba Le doesn't overdo it, resulting in just the right level of zing to balance whichever savory and fatty meats you decide to include.
Even the meat options (Ba Le does not list a vegetarian option) reflect the French-Vietnamese cultural collision already evident in the combination of crusty roll and Asian veggie mix. Charcuterie selections like pate, thin-sliced headcheese, ham and pork meatloaf (the house special -- or dac biet -- features all four) skews the menu toward its French roots, but the shredded pork skin, grilled shrimp paste and sour pork inform you that you're still eating street food from the heart of Saigon.
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