SOUTH LOOP — The owners of Ba Le bakery and sandwich shop, based in Uptown, didn't have to do any market research to decide where to open their third location.
Their South Loop storefront at 166 W. Washington St., which opened its doors for the first time at 10 a.m. Monday, closely followed the opening of their second location, in Chinatown. But for many fans it wasn't soon enough.
"Our customers have been asking for this location for the last five years," owner Tim Nguyen said after the lunch rush had died down slightly on Monday. "Most of them live near [our] Uptown or Chinatown locations and work in the Loop, and for years they've been saying they want us to open up here."
Indeed, Nguyen said he recognized a lot of customers in the Loop restaurant on opening day Dec. 10, like Sophia Sou, 24, who works nearby at Digitas on LaSalle Street.
"I was so excited to see them open downtown," Sou said. "It's been long overdue."
Ba Le's specialty is the banh mi sandwich, a product of French colonization in Vietnam that combines traditional Vietnamese ingredients like marinated meat, hot peppers and pickled vegetables with the iconic French baguette.
Ba Le's flagship location at 5014 N. Broadway St. bakes the buttery baguettes served in all three restaurants in-house, Nguyen said.
Nguyen's wife, Josephine, is the daughter of Ba Le's founder Le Vo, who opened the Broadway location in 1988. The couple work shifts in all three restaurants, and Josephine, a studied baker and graduate of the French Pastry School in Chicago, oversees the preparation of gourmet chocolates, mousse cakes and other sweets also sold at all three locations.
Ba Le isn't the only Chicago restaurant serving the traditional Vietnamese-French fusion sandwiches, but they've been widely regarded as one of the best. It regularly earns high marks in annual Zagat and Michelin restaurant roundups.