Quick think of the words "franchise" and "food" at the same time. Not very appealing, is it? Now consider "cafeteria" and "Vietnamese food," add "French patisserie," throw out all your preconceptions, and you have Ba Le.
The franchise was started by Vietnamese immigrant Thanh Quoc Lam in 1984 in Oahu, Hawaii. There are now more than 20 Ba Le outlets: in Chicago, Austin and Philadelphia, among other cities.
It is said that the chain, along with its wholesale bakery, sells 50,000 croissants a day. But there are no shortcuts or fast-food qualities at Ba Le. The couple who manages the Orlando Ba Le, Tom Ha and Kim Nguyen, take personal pride in the restaurant. All food is cooked on premises, except for the desserts, which come from the kitchen of Bruno Ponsot, whom I last encountered as the chef at Bistro Cappuccino under its previous owner. They do bake their own baguettes, however, with thin, crispy crusts that are used to serve sandwiches hoagie-style.
The sandwiches come with all sorts of fillings, both familiar and exotic. Shredded chicken or barbecue pork, meatballs (actually more like a paste than Italian fare), pickled ham with lemon sauce, and a combination of shrimp cakes and egg. The "vegi" listed as an ingredient is a wonderful combination of daikon, carrot, cucumbers and onion. Pick up your order and head for a table, where you'll find a jar of jalapeño peppers as a condiment. The most amazing part of these large sandwiches is that they cost $2.50 to $4; if you order six, you only pay for five.
Summer rolls with layers of shrimp, pork and rice noodles, and veggie rolls with shredded tofu and potato, as much art as food, line the counter waiting to be taken home. Unlike some of the other franchises, Ba Le of Orlando serves hot food, like rice bowls and soups, and quite wonderful food it is. Even the buffet breaks rules no dry rice and unidentifiable bird parts. Big hunks of barbecued chicken thigh, pork roasted with whole hard-boiled eggs, and grilled squares of tofu in a sweet tomato and onion sauce all await the prefix "let me have the ... ."
The French connection with Vietnamese food is apparent here, and not just from the Eiffel Tower on the menu. The base of the noodle soups is actually a consommé, while the soft pork sausage is called pâté. This international melange makes the food different than other Asian cuisines, but the quality makes Ba Le uniquely unchainlike.