Best of Ba-Le selections discovered in Manoa
By Matthew Gray
Advertiser Restaurant Critic
The sandwich rolls are light and crusty, crumbs exploding everywhere with each bite. You can get the rolls plain three for $1.50 to take away, but it's difficult to make a sandwich at home as good as the 20 or so choices here.
The vegetarian ($2.75) has pickled daikon, carrot, onion and parsley on it. The ham and steamed pork, pate, chicken with lemongrass and the avocado varieties all are a very affordable $3.25.
This place is very casual. The owners make it easy for customers to order, too. Photographs of many of the dishes line one wall way up high, so if it looks good, and especially if you're somewhat adventurous, you can simply point to a picture of what you want and hope for the best.
I sat down with Cindy Khanthavong, who, with her husband Davis owns this Ba-Le and the one next to the Salt Lake Costco. She told me her mother, Sen, is the reason the food is so good. "My mother is a great cook," Khanthavong said. "She used to work at (the now closed) Siam Orchid Thai Restaurant, and also at a Vietnamese place at Fort Street Mall. We offer many dishes you cannot get at other Ba-Le's."
Lunchtime is brisk here, many workers from surrounding businesses converging with one thought in mind: good food in a hurry. Several barbecue entrees such as boneless chicken, kal bi and barbecued pork chop are $5.95, and come with macaroni and green salads. Two of my favorite barbecue items are the spicy lemongrass chicken and the sauteed ginger chicken ($5.95 each, with rice and green salad).
The Vietnamese cold noodle dishes (each $5.95) feature thin rice noodles, fresh mint, bean sprouts, shredded lettuce and cucumber. Crushed toasted peanuts, onion and parsley round out the portion. The meats you can choose from are barbecued chicken or pork, and lemongrass chicken. You also can order imperial rolls (small fried spring rolls) as a topping. At the table, you'll find hoisin sauce, fish sauce, hot red chile sauce and other condiments.
Pho lovers can get the Vietnamese noodle soup here ($5.95-$6.25, depending on meat choice), served with bean sprouts, basil, fresh hot chiles and lemon wedges.
Thai appetizers such as stuffed chicken wings ($6.50) come four to an order and are hot and crunchy, filled with carrot, mushroom, onion and long rice. The chicken sateh ($6.50) was tender skewered chicken, marinated in yellow curry and served with a fine thick peanut sauce. Two skewers of pineapple, onion and sweet pepper also are included. Tofu sateh ($5.95) is quite good if you're not in a meaty mood.
Several salads are available, too; the ubiquitous green papaya salad ($5.50), a marinated beef tenderloin salad ($6.50) with onion, cucumber, mint and lime, and a couple of local-style favorites calamari salad ($7.45) and long rice salad ($6.25) with your choice of beef, chicken or pork.
The Panang curry ($6.95 with chicken, beef or pork; $8.50 with shrimp) is exceptional here, primarily a coconut cream curry. Yellow, red and green curries all offer the same meat choices (and prices), but, as is often the case, differ: Yellow curries have potatoes and carrots, red features bamboo shoots and basil, and green has eggplant.
Miss A is a fan of spicy Thai soup. The tom yum ($6.95 with chicken or pork; $8.50 with shrimp) is prepared with mushrooms, lemon grass, ginger and kaffir lime leaves. The broth can clear out the most stuffed nasal passage. There's a sublime pleasure-meets-pain component to this soup.
I've barely scratched the surface of all that's offered here. The Thai garlic shrimp and the evil shrimp (in red curry sauce) are both quite good and priced at $8.50. The noodle dishes are satisfying, especially the pad Thai (fried thin rice noodles) and the pad seiew (thick noodles in black bean sauce). Each is $6.95 with beef, pork or chicken; $7.50 with shrimp. Almost everything can be created for vegetarians, too.
Considering that Ba-Le has long been known as a sandwich shop, it's nice to see the Khanthavong family offer something for everyone.
Reach Matthew Gray at ChefMatthew@LoveLife.com.