There's not an official Chinatown in Denver, but if there were one, it would be centered around the Far East strip mall on the Southwest corner of Alameda and Federal. The Far East mall, whose entrance is framed by a magnificantly tacky Chinese-style arch, is home to several dining and shopping gems (note giant, non-tacky, golden pig), including an inconspicuous Vietnamese bakery in the far corner, Vinh Xoung. Travelling south down Federal, mixed between the taco trucks and tons of other Asian joints, is another Vietnamese bakery, Ba Le.
Today it was my pleasure to sample Bánh mì sandwiches from both bakeries.The Bánh mì sandwich is an example of how imperialist Western colonial rule can result is something good. Without the French, there would be no Vietnamese bakers making French-style baguettes, and no one would have even had the chance to think of cramming a bunch of meats and vegtables into them. Luckily for us (though maybe unlucky for many Vietnamese of the late 19th century), the French came to Vietnam and the French bakery was born in Vietnam.
I guess it is inevitable that when you have good bread around, it eventually gets made into sandwiches. The meat is the obvious part, and like other great sandwiches of the world (the Cuban, the Torta Cubana, etc) both ham and pork are used in the typical Vietnamese sandwich. Other delectable, though still obvious, toppings include paté and a mayonnaise-like spread. The genius came from whoever decided to stuff the baguette with big chunks of cucumber, carrot, daikon, onion and cilantro. Theses are flavors more familiar in a Vietnamese spring roll, but the crunch, texture and flavor they give to the Bánh mì is what gives it a unique, unforgettable and addictive flavor.
First stop of the day was Ba Le Bakery. I think it is a national chain restaurant. I'm not a huge fan of chains, but there could be worse things that a chain of Vietnamese bakeries. I had never been here before, but any time you see the Eiffel tower next to a bunch of Vietnamese lettering, bet money that there is a Vietnamese sandwich inside. If that wouldn't have tipped me off, the English part about selling Vietnamese sandwiches did. Once inside, I was a little thrown off by the choices. There were ten options on the wall with pictures, numbers and descriptions. Now I've had plenty of Vietnamese sandwiches, but I'm no expert, so when I go to a Vietnamese bakery I usually just wander up to the counter and say, "Sandwich, please." I am not used to so many intra-bakery options. All my previous training was useless here. And my limitations of reading Vietnamese or knowing what I wanted became quickly obvious to the cahsier, who was nice enough, in a dry, could-care-less, kind of way. This is the best I could come up with: "What is your best sandwich?"
"Most popular is Special." She dryly responded while looking out the window at our car that was parked in a 10-minute only spot. Then she looked back at me and gave me the hurry-up-cause-you're-in-the-10-minute-only-spot look.
"Is it the best?" I asked, hoping some playful banter would loosen her up. No real response. "Does it have ham, pork and paté?"
While I fumbled around at the counter like a rookie, my wife expertly managed a self-serve frozen yogurt bar, and came to join me at the counter with a cupful of exotic frozen yogurt flavors. We got our sandwich and filed out the door. We ate the yogurt in the car on our way up north to bakery number two. The purplish, taro-flavored yogurt was my favorite, although the coconut and green tea were a close second.
The lady behind the counter barked an order into the back room and I assumed that work on the sandwich had begun, so I began looking around and decided to grab a pudding-like dessert from the fridge. It had a description in English: coconut milk, yam, sweet potato, taro. Sounds good. Different at least. I grabbed it, and with my sandwich ready, headed out the door.
Vinh Xoung, meet Ba Le
My wife in the meantime had wandered into one of the Chinatown-like stores but emerged without a golden giant pig despite my birthday being only weeks away. She was ready to eat and joined me on the steps outside to began the taste test. To start, both sandwiches cost less than $3, which is typical of this sandwich and an incredible value. Both were also very good but had more differences than I expected. The Ba Le sandwich was warm and the baguette was excellent. It had less toppings than the Vinh Xoung sandwich and more mayo-substance. The Vinh Xoung sandwich was bigger, had more meat, was heavy on the paté and the vegtable chunks were huge. It is more what I am used to in a Vietnamese sandwich, but I do admit I like the warm bread and meat, and the Ba Le baguette was worlds better. I would go back for either one. Both places have a great dessert too. The Ba Le yogurt was like $0.45 an ounce and is a great value for some unique flavors. The pudding-like thing was amazing as well. It was almost like the Mexican arroz con leche (rice pudding) but with coconut milk. The sweet potatoes gave it a unique, savory sweetness.
In conclusion, I liked the Vinh Xoung sandwich a little better for the big vegetable chunks and thick spread paté, but the warm, crispy bread of Ba Le won over my wife. I don't think you can go wrong with either one, especially not for $2.75. So what will it be?
Vinh Xoung? or
Ba Le? You Decide.