It always surpsrises me when I return home from Vietnam a few pounds lighter. Keep in mind that the nation still is a third world country, and the general mindset of the Vietnamese isn't as diet-fanatical as it is here. Although I've traveled back to Vietnam quite frequently over the past decade, this last trip was the first time I've ever been able to find Diet Coke -- or Coca-Cola Light, as they call it over there (the word "diet" really being that ridiculous in their estimation) -- in a restaurant or grocery store. Still, some things haven't changed. Their yogurts remain full of fat, their milk remains un-skimmed, and their breakfast still reminds me of lunch.
Typical breakfast dishes in Vietnam include familiar American Vietnamese restaurant menu items like pho, banh mi and banh cuon. Admittedly, I normally forego these heavy forms of breakfast and stick to the splendid tropical fruits I can't find here, but, every once in a while, I'll indulge in the heftier fare. My personal favorite breakfast indulgence while in Vietnam is the banh mi dac biet op la. English translation: Vietnamese sandwich with the works and an over easy egg on top.
That meager description just won't suffice. Let's break this baby down, shall we? You may have had a banh mi before, but -- unlike pho -- I firmly believe you haven't HAD a banh mi until you've had one from Vietnam. Of course there are good banh mi to be found in the U.S., but they simply can't compare.
Starting with the bread, a common error that many banh mi shops in the U.S. make is using too thick of a French baguette. Maybe it's our obsession with carbs, but with too thick of a baguette, the sandwich becomes all about the bread and not the rest of the ingredients. The sandwiches in Vietnam customarily use thinner, more airy, baguettes. With the thinner encasement, the bread therefore acts as a crusty receptacle for what's inside.
I usually order the dac biet, so what's inside would be just about everything: Steamed sausage slices, head cheese, roast pork, pungent pate, pickled carrots and dichon, fresh cilantro, and spicy peppers. The runny yolk from the fried egg ties everything together and rounds out the flavors.
Since I'm still going through Asia withdrawals, I found myself wandering around Garland this week, looking for a Vietnamese breakfast fix. Although I was worried that all the Vietnamese restaurants wouldn't be open until lunch time, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Ba Le, the well-known sandwich shop, was open as early as 8:30 in the morning.
A little clarification about the overused Vietnamese sandwich shop moniker "Ba Le":
Ba Le was a famous sandwich shop back in the motherland, and, since imitation is not a concept lost on the Vietnamese, the name spread like wildfire when banh mi restaurants started opening shop across America.
There are numerous Ba Le's in the DFW area, and the Garland and Carrolton posts share the same owner. Although the former is highly popular due to Garland's high number of Vietnamese residents, on the morning I visited, the trickle of customers was a varied group. Along with sandwiches, the shop also sells a variety of Vietnamese snacks, packaged meals, deli meats, and desserts. However, the Garland Ba Le' s biggest draw, aside from the sandwiches, would have to be the nuoc mia, or sugarcane juice.
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The imposing sugarcane juicer is quite the serious looking machine, made especially more intimidating by the tiny size of the shop, but what comes out of it is delightfully bright refreshing. One sip recalled memories of my father bringing home large stalks of sugarcane, peeling off the rough skins, and chopping up the sweet fibers for us to happily chew away on. No longer must one laboriously chew away on tough sugarcane for spurts of sweet nectar when one can simply purchase a full cup of the good stuff for $2.50 a pop.
Faring less favorably at $2.50, however, was my sandwich. My banh mi cha lua pate, or sausage and pate sandwich, was flavorful, but didn't stand a chance on the brick of French baguette on which it was served. Although the baguette was perfectly crusty, it was simply too much bread. The steamed Vietnamese sausage, pate, and pickles were tasty enough. The homemade mayonnaise was also a nice, creamy touch. However, the bread just dwarfs everything.
Some of my friends and family insist that an Arlington outpost of Ba Le will rock my world, but that'll have to wait for another week. A twenty-mile drive may seem like a far ways to go to satiate a sandwich fix, but, considering the alternative is an 8,000 mile flight, I may as well give it a try.
526 W. Walnut St Garland, TX 75042-6234 - (972) 276-6665