When I was a kid, I’d go down to Chinatown with my parents or my grandparents to do our grocery shopping. There was always one specific store where we’d buy our fish. There’s one specific store where we’d buy our rice. There’s one specific store where we’d get our fresh produce. And then we’d have some lunch at the Boss or Maxim’s. But a lot has changed since the days of my childhood. Thankfully, even though things have changed, some things still stay the same.
Part of this is because the face of the Chinese community in Vancouver has also changed considerably in the last couple of decades. The first wave of immigrants aren’t really around anymore and the subsequent waves do more of their shopping on Victoria Drive or in Richmond or at T&T. It’s just… different.
And the building where Ba Le Sandwich Shop once stood is no longer there, a victim of the mass “gentrification” of the area. They’re making way for more condos and more development. And more hipster coffee shops. But this “old” community is resilient, including those who aren’t even Chinese, as is the case with this Vietnamese sandwich shop.
Some time back, Ba Le moved across the street to the other side of Main Street, next to a hair salon. The interior is best described as Spartan. There is nothing to speak of in terms of decoration, aside from a couple of photos pasted to one wall next to the cashier and the pictorial menu on the other wall.
While you can find banh mi sandwiches at one of the many pho restaurants in Vancouver, it’s a different experience getting the sandwich from a grab-and-go place like Ba Le. There are similar, humble shops along the Kingsway corridor too, but in Chinatown, Ba Le rules.
When I was there on a Sunday afternoon around 2 o’clock, the lineup was steadily about three or four people deep. This place is the real deal and it stays true to its affordable roots. Most sandwiches are $3.50, with a few of the fancier ones ringing in at $5. Don’t expect anything else on the menu. You won’t find any salad rolls or vermicelli or anything of that sort here, but you can get a pre-made iced coffee.
My go-to favorite at just about any banh mi shop is the meatball ($3.50). The ground-up meat here is seasoned further with a slightly sour dressing. Curiously, while the sandwich came with the usual pickled daikon, pickled carrot and cilantro, as well as onion, it didn’t get the hot chili pepper.
Perhaps it’s because the sandwich had to survive another 15-20 minute drive home, but I found the bread here to be not quite as crispy as I would have liked. It’s softer, unlike the “delicious glass” that my friend Ed Lau prefers with his Vietnamese subs. I imagine the sauce from the meatball sogged up the bread somewhat.
The same default toppings are included with the shredded pork ($3.50). Perhaps because this meat is decidedly drier, or maybe because of the luck of the draw, the bread here managed to stay crispier. The flavors are good, adding just enough saltiness to the wonderfully satisfying sandwich.
When I said the only thing on the menu at Ba Le is the sandwiches, that’s not completely true. The cooler along one wall provides a number of bottled and canned beverages, as well as a selection of Vietnamese desserts. From the cooler that serves as the front counter, you can also find the Vietnamese ham and a few other items to take home too.
Ba Le isn’t trying to maintain appearances. It isn’t trying to be anything that it’s not. The proprietors take pride in their humble work and it shows. Just bring cash, because they don’t take plastic… as has been the norm throughout the area for decades.
If you’re hanging out in Chinatown and you don’t want to brave the line at Phnom Penh for incredible chicken wings, Ba Le is a solid bet for a quick and cheap Vietnamese sub sandwich on the go. And you’ll need to take it to go, as there is only one table inside.