In this great country of ours, one could eat a different sandwich every day of the year—so that's what we'll do. Here's A Sandwich a Day, our daily look at sandwiches around the country. Got a sandwich we should check out? Let us know. —The Mgmt.
I was up in Boston two weekends ago picking up the dogs, who had been staying with friends over the winter break. As is usual, I made sure to leave time in my otherwise busy eating schedule to fit in at least one Sichuan meal and one trip to a Vietnamese sandwich shop—perhaps the two things I miss most since leaving town a few years ago. Normally, my sandwich experience will take place at one of the fine establishments in Boston proper, but this time, I decided to take the time to head out to Dorchester on a Sunday morning to take my place in line at the Grand Emperor of Vietnamese sandwich shops: Ba Le Restaurant and Bakery.
You might ask if Ba Le's bread has a fresher, thinner crunchy crust and softer, fluffier interior than any other Vietnamese bakery's bread in town. It does. Or you might wonder about their daikon and carrot pickles—are they crunchier, brighter, and more balanced than the competition? They are. What about speed? Are they good for a quick meal? Can their sandwich-slingers throw together a perfect meal for four in under 45 seconds. They sure can.
Banh Mí Ba Le's Vietnamese sandwiches are the best in town—heck, the best I've had in this hemisphere, period. They beat out the competition in virtually every important category I can think of when it comes to judging Vietnamese sandwiches. Their pork roll is always fresh, their headcheese riddled with crunchy bits of pig's ears, their pâté bright pink, flavorful, and applied in a perfect thin layer. Their mayo is sweet and bright, adding richness but no grease.
Their grilled meats are outstanding—both lemongrass-marinated pork and beef come deeply charred with an intense grilled flavor and a sweetness that perfectly balances with the savory fish sauce-based marinade. Their cucumbers are fresh, crunchy, and carefully nestled deep down into the fold of the sandwich, ensuring that you get some in every bite. Their cilantro is carefully picked so that only the leaves and tender stems make it into your mouth.
Their pig skin bi is crunchy and tender, their dry shredded pork cottony soft. Where most sandwich shops are content giving you a few squirts of pre-fab bottled Maggi seasoning, Ba Le drizzles your 'wich with a house-made secret sauce (I'd swear it contains some fish sauce, but I've been told otherwise by more than one source) that packs a powerful sweet and savory punch. This sauce alone is worth the drive out to Dorchester.
Order yourself one of the barbecue meat versions and you'll get an extra ladleful of their savory scallion oil, adding another layer of flavor to the already too-complex-to-adequately-describe base.
Above all, their sandwiches are balanced and appropriately proportioned. All too often (and in New York in particular), banh mí are stuffed to hoagie-like proportions, too much meat throwing off the flavor balance, or worse yet, making it impossible to get a single bite which combines every element. Not so at Ba Le, where every bite tastes just as it should.
Oh, and after all that, you might ask what the price for this king of sandwiches is. $3. Yes, really. $3.
There are other great, inexpensive Vietnamese sandwiches in the Boston area—Pho Viet in the Super 88 in Allston. Mei Sum or Banh Mi Saigon in Chinatown, where you can buy used gold along with your banh mí xiu mei. Even LA Baguette down the street from Ba Le offers some competition. But the competition ain't too stiff—Ba Le always takes the lead by a good foot-long sub.
It'd been years since I'd eaten a Banh Mí from Ba Le, but with a single bite, it was as if we'd never been apart.
Banh Mí Ba Le Restaurant
1052 Dorchester Avenue, Dorchester MA 02125 (map)
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.