Of all the food sold on the streets and at the markets in Vietnam, banh mi may be the most universal, peddled by wandering vendors hauling baskets of baguettes on their backs and at tiny slivers of shops wedged into the never-ending rows of storefronts. But in Denver, there are only a few places where you can get the real thing. My favorite is Ba Le.
Part market, part sandwich shop, this bare-bones spot in a dilapidated strip mall boasts nothing more than a counter, a couple of refrigerators and a wall of self-serve frozen-yogurt machines where, if you're not careful, you can run up a significant tab for a cup of dessert. The refrigerators hold Vietnamese drinks in addition to housemade pâtés and other banh mi accoutrements, including plastic tubs of julienned pickled radishes and carrots and homemade mayonnaise. The counter displays a rotating roster of fresh Vietnamese street treats: sweet, puffy doughnuts and banana-leaf-wrapped rice cakes, gelatinous pockets filled with piquant minced pork and mushrooms. I couldn't resist picking up one of those pockets when I stopped in last week, eating it out of a makeshift cone of tin foil while I listened to Asian pop and waited for my banh mi.
Ba Le offers almost twenty varieties of the Vietnamese sandwich, illustrated in backlit pictures on the wall above the counter and all prepared to order. A crunchy, house-baked baguette is warmed up and then stuffed with silky pâtés, shaved meats made of various parts of pig, a smattering of vinegary pickled vegetables, a smear of mayo and, in the true spirit of the banh mi's homeland, enough fresh cilantro (stems and all) and crisp cucumbers to make a salad.
The shop may not recall a bustling market or a busy street in Hanoi, but those sandwiches are exactly what you'd find in Vietnam. And at less than $3 each, they're priced about the same, too.