A taste of history: How Ba Le brought bánh mì from Saigon to Chicago

In the 1950s, Le Vo built a wooden stand, launching his own business selling drinks on the streets of Saigon. Amid the French colonization of his home country, the man from the southern Vietnamese countryside began experimenting with food. He was committed to finding a dish he could specialize in. In this search, Vo discovered his true passion: bánh mì. 

Decades later, in 1972, he’d immigrate to the U.S, upgrading his handmade stand to his own brick-and-mortar sandwich shop Ba Le — now located in Chicago at Asia on Argyle. 

The business has become a legacy for the Vo family, a way to pass down the tastes and history of Vietnamese cuisine to each generation. Since the 1970’s many Vietnamese immigrants have turned to Vo for business management advice, and he’s taught them how to utilize their resources to bring Vietnamese culture to America. In guiding other Vietnamese business owners, he has become a key player in the spread of Vietnamese business throughout the country — specifically in Chicago.

Ba Le’s speciality dish, bánh mì, is a traditional Vietnamese sandwich with meats and vegetables stuffed inside a baguette split lengthwise. The focal point of the meal is its bread, distinguishing the sandwich from a typical sub. In fact, bánh mì (also spelled bánh mỳ in northern Vietnam) translates to “bread” in English.

The short baguette in a bánh mì sandwich — characterized by its crispy crust and fluffy inside — is a remnant of mid-19th century Vietnam, which was a period marked by French colonial conquest. About a century later in 1950s Saigon, the bánh mì sandwich was created, becoming a popular street food sold by local vendors like Le Vo. 

Back in Saigon, Vo learned how to make his own baguettes from French bakers, and he prepared his own meats and vegetables. He experimented with different flavor profiles by adjusting the timing, proportions and chemistry of his ingredients. After years of success with the shop, Vo closed his doors in 1972 to come to America.

Vo then opened the first Ba Le bakery in 1982 in San Jose, California. When deciding on the name for his bakery, Vo chose “Ba Le” because “Ba” is the Vietnamese word for the number three (which represents him being the third brother in his family) and “Le” is his first name. Vo’s son-in-law, Tim Nguyen, says the name also acquired a second meaning when the family discovered that Ba Lê means Paris in Vietnamese. The current logo for the shop features an Eiffel Tower, which Nguyen says is a tribute to the food’s French influence.

“At that time, it was all family.” Nguyen says. “We didn’t hire anybody. It was all family-owned and operated.” 

After receiving success with his initial San Jose location, Vo decided to expand. He opened a second Ba Le in Chicago six years later. This shop, managed by Nguyen, is located at 5014 N. Broadway St. in Asia on Argyle, the company’s main location. 

The Chicago location, currently open for take-out only, features more than just a counter and cashiers. The store is lined with refrigerators where customers fill their grocery baskets with deli items like pork, ham and pâté, or refrigerated treats like taro pudding, coconut jello and bao buns. The bakery section includes traditional Vietnamese food like bánh dày (rice cakes), chạo tôm (sugarcane shrimp) and chả chiên (fried pork patties).

Despite the expansion of the Ba Le brand, Nguyen says “it’s still all within the family.” 

Ba Le has since been handed down to Vo and his wife’s two sons and three daughters. One of Vo’s three daughters is Nguyen’s wife, Josephine. Two of her siblings have since opened Ba Le locations in Philadelphia and Virginia, which Nguyen says are the only other two locations open right now, in addition to the shop in Chicago. 

The most interesting part of the Chicago location — which Nguyen says sets it apart from other Ba Le locations — is the French food they offer. A three-tier wooden table full of French staples sits right in the middle of the refrigerators and cases of Vietnamese food that surround it. It’s in this section of the restaurant that Ba Le offers everything from flavored croissants and French coffee to macarons and crêpe cakes.

When the Chicago location opened in 1988, Nguyen says the Ba Le menu had about four or five different sandwiches, each priced at around $3. In the 33 years since its opening, the menu has expanded to 21 sandwiches, including four vegan options and two vegetarian options. Most sandwiches on the menu include the same six staple ingredients: mayonnaise, pickled daikon, pickled carrot, onion, cilantro and jalapeño. The variation lies in the choice of meats and condiments. 

One of the most popular menu items is the “Special,” or “đặc biệt” sandwich, which features the original Saigon-style combination of pâté, ham, headcheese and pork roll. However, Nguyen finds that the vegetarian and vegan sandwiches have been selling especially well in the last few years. Among the favorites is the “Veggie Avocado” sandwich, packed with fried tofu, jicama, potato, vermicelli noodle, swiss cheese, avocado, pickled daikon, pickled carrot, mayonnaise, soy sauce, salt, pepper, lettuce, tomato, pickled jalapeno, onion and cilantro. With 17 ingredients, this vegetarian sandwich is loaded with flavor in every bite, making it a popular choice among vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.

Vo’s legacy extends further than Ba Le. According to Nguyen, “there are other uncles and aunts who were the students of my father-in-law, who have their own shops all over the country from California to Texas to Boston to Maryland, just to name a few.” These other restaurants don’t go by the name Ba Le, and not all of them are known for bánh mì, but they are all influenced by Vo’s culinary teachings. “They’re all independently owned,” Nguyen says. “But we’re all in some way connected.”

Before his passing in 2010, Vo’s dream for the company was to have a central kitchen that would provide the deli items and baked goods for all Ba Le shops. Although Vo won’t be here to see his dream come to life, Nguyen says the central kitchen has been in the works for about three years and is projected to be finished by the end of 2021.

Within the last 10 years, Nguyen says Ba Le has opened a few other shops in areas like Chinatown, South Loop and some suburban neighborhoods, but they have all since been closed and consolidated to focus on the Uptown location. However, Nguyen says that Ba Le is once again looking to expand in the Chicago area, and there may be a new location coming soon to the northwest suburbs.