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....
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.
The fine-grained, spreadable pate achieves a perfect softness and open flavor if you have the patience to let the warmth from the bread penetrate the filling. The chewy nubs of BBQ pork provide a sweet and tangy counterpoint to the slightly cured, almost hammy, flavor of the pork. The grilled shrimp paste, possibly my favorite, offers a substantial and firm sausage-like bite, despite being called a paste. The textural oddity of the shredded pork skin made it the only sandwich that proved a little messy to eat. Strings of rubbery pork skin pull out and snap back unless you take the utmost care in biting completely through the tangled mass. Still, the delicate pork flavor of the fine threads of skin make up for the inconvenience of a few stray strands that may find their way onto your shirt.
While a trip to Ba Le would be wasted without purchasing a pile of sandwiches stacked like cordwood, other items are available. A variety of gio cha -- Vietnamese snacks perfect for picnics or family gatherings -- fill the counter. Foil-wrapped pyramidal dumplings, crisp egg rolls, pork rolls and pates fight for space with brightly dyed mounds of sticky rice, cups of lychees, and bags of unfamiliar nuts. If you're shopping for some age-defying face cream or false eyelashes, Ba Le can hook you up there, too.
The fusion doesn't end with a simple and logical combination of international sandwich ingredients. It extends to the small-town deli atmosphere of the shop combined with the vivid, backlit images of exotic, chunky beverages made from things like taro root, pennywort, longan, tapioca pearls and grass jelly -- drinks that look like rebellious malt-shop rejects that must be sucked through wide-guage straws. It's evident in the market-stall overflow of seemingly mismatched goods, the Technicolor posters advertising Vietnamese pop stars next to "Hot Boy" Chip 'n' Dale dancers, and the somehow Dairy-Queen-like wholesomeness of the staff.
If you can't take a few minutes to put down your preconceived ideas of authenticity or purity in food or culture, if you don't smile at the delightful and crazy colors and aromas that want to high-five you like a Hello Kitty on a sugar binge, then really, you simply have no soul.
For more from our trip down Federal, visit our A Federal Case archive.
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