Ba Le: Good Sandwiches, But Not Great
A couple of weeks ago, when a visit to Ba Le in Garland proved disappointing, I teased that I would be trying out the much more highly recommended outpost in Arlington.
The two restaurants couldn't be more opposite. While the Garland location is a small deli take-home type of establishment with only one table, Ba Le Arlington is an all-encompassing Vietnamese restaurant complete with a full menu. The restaurant's location is easy to miss, which made the sprawling dining room even a more pleasant surprise.
Customers are immediately met with a large display case full of extensive rice-box dishes, from braised pork belly to bitter gourd soup. Over the counter to-go orders are popular, but we opted for the full sit-down dining experience.
Ask a Vietnamese person in Tarrant County where his favorite banh mi is, and nine times out of 10 the answer is Ba Le. After trying a couple of different sandwiches, I could see why. Fillings are generous. All three sandwiches we ordered--a grilled pork thit nuong, a deli meat dac biet, and a Vietnamese sausage xiu mai--were overflowing with meat. I was worried about the familiar looking thick French baguette, but after taking my first bite, I was happy to be proven wrong.
Despite the intimidating size, the inside texture of the bread was light and airy, yielding a crusty bread that could be flattened out when bitten into. All the various meats, however, had problems. The deli meats and grilled pork, albeit abundant, were slightly dry. Fortunately, the seasoning for the grilled pork was incredibly tasty. The same cannot be said for the loose meat xiu mai. Ba Le's xiu mai resembled an overly salty sloppy Joe mixture, and it's not something I will reorder.
With such a vast menu, we felt obligated to try a dish beyond the banh mi. Skipping the pho, we opted instead to try a bowl of mi, or egg noodles. This was a mistake. Not that I could have possibly known if the pho would have turned out better, but the mi was terrible. The unusual-tasting broth was bland, and the thicker-type egg noodle Ba Le uses only exacerbated the fact.
In true Vietnamese deli-slash-restaurant style, Ba Le also offers different che's, or Vietnamese desserts, behind a glass display case. Before leaving the restaurant, the fat girl who lives inside of me ordered a che bap, or corn pudding, to go. Having not looked at the dessert inside the to-go paper sack before I ordered it, I was surprised at what I found once I took the che out the bag. The color of the corn was highlighter yellow, and the che was committing the cardinal sin of being already pre-mixed with coconut milk. This would be like KFC pouring a bucket of gravy into a cup of mashed potatoes, mixing it all together, and serving it to you...cold.
Yes, che bap can be eaten cold or hot, but coconut milk is a very personal thing, i.e. syrup on pancakes. The resulting taste of Ba Le's Frankenstein-like decision was a grossly sweet and rich monstrosity. The cold temperature of the che didn't help the texture, as it was like eating bits of corn between mounds of congealed fat. Fans of coconut milk, however, might like it. The boyfriend is one of those fans. I let him finish it.
Other than the exceptional bread, I didn't consume anything at Ba Le that warrants much excitement. The sandwiches are good, and I'd definitely return for one if I were in Arlington and in the mood for a banh mi. And to be fair, the menu is full of items I still haven't tried. In the meantime, I'll just have to bite my tongue when the restaurant's many fans (my family included) praise the greatness that is the Ba Le in Arlington.
2240 Browning Drive, Arlington