Until reader Mike Henry alerted me to Ba Le Vietnamese Deli in Langley Park, I had generally assumed a trip to Falls Church was required for any decent banh mi in the area. But last week I made not one but two visits to the strip center deli.
Four sandwiches later, I’m a serious fan.
Much to my surprise (and shame), Ba Le has been opened for nearly a decade. One of the employees told me over the counter that Ba Le also has a store in Northern Virginia, but if you do a Google search, you’ll find (presumably unrelated) Ba Le delis in several locations around the area, and even in another country. Sometimes you’ll find it spelled Bale (see picture below for the signage in Langley Park), but I think that’s more a function of American ignorance than actual spelling. (Incidentally, after way too much searching, I’m still not sure what “ba le” means, but it seems clear that it doesn’t translate into “Paris.”)
Whatever. Everything, the counter employee told me, is prepared in-house (well, at the Virginia store) for Ba Le’s banh mi, including the pâté and the head cheese for the No. 1 combo. A sign on the bin for the sandwich rolls claims the bread is baked fresh daily, too, but I couldn’t confirm via a couple of phone calls today (“I’m busy. Call back later.” Click.) if the stuff is made in-house.
The bread can be the weakest link, a little too crackly as the sometimes stale roll breaks down into crumbs all over your lap. But the fillings are fresh and, better yet, smack of fish sauce, that pungent liquid packed with natural umami. This is not a sandwich for tourists.
You can order your banh mi with or without sliced jalapenos, but why anyone would forgo the ringlets is beyond me. Without the heat, the cooling cilantro leaves are robbed of one of their primary functions: playing the foil to the peppers. Ba Le’s julienne veggies are lightly pickled, as not to dominate the sandwich, and its head cheese is not a rubbery slice of deli meat daring you to bite into it and pull out a length of chewy pig’s ear. This head cheese is carefully prepared to provide just the right amount of texture.
The condiments and seasonings are the final grace notes, whether the yellow-tinted house-made mayonnaise or the liberal amounts of cracked black pepper. They add richness, spice, and, in the case of the fish sauce, a depth of flavor that turns an average banh mi experience into an excellent one.