Pho to go, Kalbi Plate Lunch, and More
Posted 18 November 2004 - 12:45 PM
Like many institutions of higher education, the University of Hawai`i's main campus has for several years leased the rights to stuff food down the mouths of its 20-some odd thousand students to Sodexho, the French giant that dominates much of the world's institutional food service business. This contract was inherited from Marriott Host, which had itself held the contract for several years, when the Host was swallowed whole by Sodexho. Despite what some purveyours of crude national stereotypes may think, moving from being Utah-owned to French-owned did not lead to an instant transformation in the quality of food, and over recent years the complaints have continued to pile up. Of course, griping about campus food service is just a normal part of the college experience, but at UH the complaints had a special poignancy - the food was simply not "local" enough. It was generic mainland food being plied onto them by a European-owned company, and didn't reflect the Pacific and Asian roots of much of the student population.
To give credit to the management, they had gone out of their way in recent year in attempting to address these complaints, installing such things as a select-your-own-stir-fry station, a saimin (soup noodle) stall, and even a loco-moco (meat and egg on rice) bar at the various campus dining locations, as well as providing packaged assortments of sushi, manapua (local-style dimsum), and spam musubi (you don't want to know). Nonetheless, many students continued to feel that the versions of the dishes supplied were not up to par with what they were used to getting from outside restaurants and plate lunch places, and while business improved, it still failed to take off.
Last year, the management even experimented with setting up a demonstration station specializing in Hawaiian Regional Cuisine, offering up such dishes as tataki-style seared rare ahi, furikake-crusted mahimahi, and garlic-teriyaki marinated ribeye. However, this was a commercial failure. While the prices for these dishes was relatively cheap, generally under $10, it was still more than the average college student was willing or able to pay for a school cafeteria lunch.
Starting from this August, seemingly in desperation, the management finally crossed the Rubicon. Sodexho essentially subcontracted most of the campus dining facilities to two local companies: Ba-le and PBHK Inc. Ba-le is a fast food franchise operation specializing in banh mi, Vietnamese-style baguette sandwiches. PBHK is the parent company for Yummy's, a chain specializing in Korean-style plate lunches. Ba-le and Yummy's are the third and fourth largest restaurant chains in the state (after L&L and Zippy's). Ba-le is the second-largest Vietnamese restaurant chain in the world (after Pho Hoa), and Yummy's is the largest Korean restaurant chain in the U.S.
That this is an act of desperation is indicated by the fact that Sodexho is not in a good position regardless of whether the experiment works or not. If it fails, then it will be blamed. If it succeeds, then the University management could presumably decide to contract directly with the vendors themselves.
PBHK has essentially taken over the Campus Center Dining Hall, the largest eating facility on campus, while Ba-le has taken over what used to be called Manoa Gardens, an annex of sorts for the Campus Center, located between it and the undergraduate library. The third major dining facility, the Paradise Palms Cafe, remains largely unchanged and continues to be run directly by Sodexho, except for a Chinese-style takeout line has opened up (run by whom, I'm not sure).
So what's it like? I'll start with Ba-le. As a full-service operation, the campus Ba-le couldn't very well serve only banh mi, so instead it has three different food stations as well as an assortment of packaged foods. Two of the stations offer an assortment of banh mi and pho, respectively, while the third offers Vietnamese-style curries and stews. There are a variety of ready-made salads and summer rolls on an island in the center. Bubble tea and Vietnamese-style ice coffee are available, as are an assortment of tapioca desserts. If you're desperate to avoid Vietnamese cuisine, you can still call through a small winodw and have the chef rustle up you some chicken fingers, onion rings and other fried 'Freedom Food'.
While the menu is greatly expanded from that of the usual Ba-le, it's not as much of a stretch at it might seem at first glance, since a few of the other Ba-le franchises, such as the one in Manoa Marketplace, also offer expanded menus, though without the chicken fingers. However, the nature of the facilities and the need for mass feedings during the lunch hour mean that the format is somewhat different. The entrance continues to be like that of the typical university cafeteria, rather than a restaurant, with first thing you see not being a chirpy greeter but rather stacks upon stacks of plastic trays arrayed low to the ground.
At the pho station, however, things are somewhat interesting. The need to prepare the pho quickly leads to a setup that is in some ways a strangely updated version of the what one might see in the birthplace of pho, the street stalls of Hanoi. The lady (sorry for cutting off her head) preparing the pho stands in front of a large array of veggies and two kinds of precooked meat, beef balls and chicken. For safety reasons, the raw beef strips are kept in a small refrigerated compartment behind the fixin' setup. The rice noodles are separate little piles and are quickly boiled to order in a colander-like instrument, while the broth stands in a huge pot on a burner next to the boiling water for the noodles. Things get really hectic during the rush hour, but the pho lady has already worked out a system for boiling one person's noodles while putting the garnishes on the next persons'.
The pho itself is served in styro bowls similar to the kind associated with instant ramen. There are piles of plastic lids at the utensil station you can place on top of the bowls so that you can take it back to your office. The veggies (mung bean sprouts and basil) and lemon are on the side - you have to wrap it in aluminum foil if you want to take them out separately.
By the time you get back to your office, the raw beef is completely well done. Well, that's your fault for being so stuck to your desk and computer. The broth is O.K., with the requisite star anise and fish sauce flavors, though perhaps, in my opinion, it could be more concentrated in both the meat flavor and the seasonings. But you can't complain - it's a reasonably healthy alternative that wasn't available before; now you have no excuse for always larding up on food-service grinds.
The banh mi gets prepared at a sandwich station with similar trays full of different fillings. The main innovations are that there are a larger variety of breads - in addition to the usual baguette and croissant, you can also get your banh mi in ciabatta or whole-grain loaves. All are baked at the central Ba-Le bakery in Palama, which is to say that they are baked that morning and are of decent quality - none of the squishy stuff. The fillings are the usual ham, pate, fried tofu, lemongrass chicken, and veggies only, as well as roast beef, turkey, tuna, and even pastrami for those who wanted to be at Subway's (which, ironically, has opened up just around the corner). I've never seen anybody actually order the latter four, so I'm not even sure they're even necessary. The garnishes are carrot-and-daikon pickle, cucumber, and cilantro, just like Ba-Le sandwiches anywhere else. This is the lemongrass chicken banh mi, though it's hard to see it through all the garnishes. . .
I was interested in trying the Vietnamese-style curry, since it's not a common dish even at most sit-down Vietnamese restaurants here, and is an interesting solution to the problem of how to offer a "hot meal" alternative to pho and sandwiches without using up excessive labor.
You can have your curry with rice on the side, or Saigon-style, with a baguette. There are two kinds - chicken or the one pictured, eggplant and tofu. They do not skimp on the coconut milk for this curry - there is a lot of it, seasoned with a fenugreek n' turmeric laden Vietnamese-style curry powder. I like eating it with the baguette - it soaks up the sauce much easier than the rice.
The ready-made foods include an assortment of summer rolls (pork, shrimp, or even tuna); rice noodle salads topped with lemon grass chicken, spring rolls, or fried tofu; beef or lemon grass chicken lettuce salad, and green papaya salad. Of course, don't expect the spring rolls to be super-crisp, but otherwise there is a surprisingly large assortment to choose from.
Here's the tapioca tank. A food service first!
We'll get to the Campus Center when I have time. . .
Posted 21 November 2004 - 12:18 PM
Posted 22 November 2004 - 02:18 PM
Rachel, the "Ba-Le" you went to in Austin was probably a copycat restaurant and not an official franchise! As far as I know the official Ba-Le franchises are restricted to Hawai`i, though there may be a few that are unofficially affilitated and run by relatives on the West Coast. But the fact that someone in Texas is copying the Ba-Le name shows that the chain has really achieved a high level of visibility. . .
Posted 01 December 2004 - 04:21 PM
Posted 03 December 2004 - 11:31 AM
Well, that's a relief Sun-Ki because if they allowed this kind of sloppy management their name would be badly damaged. I do seem to remember that in the early 90s when they were exploding in Hawaii they had some, shall we say, outlets that didn't match up to the Chinatown one, but they took care of that. I yearn for their sandwiches, their spring rolls, and my husband just doesn't think my coconut milk tapioca pudding is even worth eating. May they expand!
Posted 07 December 2004 - 12:34 PM
Posted 08 December 2004 - 01:22 AM
Laniloa, welcome to the Hawai`i forum, hope to hear more from you! The Ba-Le in Maryland sounds intriguing. Either they have some sort of unofficial franchise or they know how to copy real well. Either way, the Ba-Le idea and name keeps on growing. . . .
Posted 10 December 2004 - 03:47 PM
The look and feel of the premises are just as institutional as ever, but the various stall "islands" have been fast-food-ized with florescent display menus posted behind each wall.
We can start with Yummy's. Without going into much detail about whole the Korean fast-food phenomenon here in Hawai`i, I can summarize by saying that you go through the line and pick one or a combo of (kalbi, bulgogi, bbq chicken (dak gui), fish jeon (pan-fried in egg batter), "meat jeon") or a "light" alternative such as bibimbap or "tofu soup" (ersatz tubu tchigae). Then you get to pick four sides, which include a number of common Korean panchan but also a few local adaptations and simplifications that you'd never find in Korea or even LA for that matter. The choices include Nappa cabbage kimchi, cucumber kimchi (sliced instead of stuffed as you would find in a "proper" Korean restaurant), watercress namul salad, miyeok muchim seaweed salad, mung bean sprout namul, a shredded daikon salad with chili peppers on it, seasoned dried cod taegu, mac salad (of course), potato salad made with large pieces of unpeeled salad potatoes, and plain boiled corn, all stacked in massive piles in metal trays. This is fast food, remember? Even the recognizably Korean dishes are customized to local tastes, and are not quite as hot and slightly sweeter. In addition to the four sides, they throw in a piece of fried mandu (potsticker) and hobak jeon (egg-batter fried zucchini). That's the "regular" meal. If you want to eat a more human-size portion, you can order a "mini", which is a couple dollars less.
Here is a combo regular plate with bbq chicken and kalbi. The side dishes are (left to right), seaweed salad, watercress salad, cucumber kimchi, and cabbage kimchi.
On a diet? Here's the meat jeon mini with only two sides, one scoop of rice, and no extras. The sides are cabbage kimchi and potato salad. Incidentally, meat jeon, at least this kind of teriyaki steak-sized portion, is not something that you would be hard-put to find in any restaurant in Korea. Beef is relatively expensive, and the idea of coating a good piece of beef in egg (as they would the more common fish jeon or with hamburger) still seems like a waste there. But in Hawaii, meat jeon may be the second-most popular Korean entrée after kalbi. You eat it with "meat jeon sauce", which is either seasoned soy sauce or a chili-bean paste and vinegar combination.
Here indeed are the two meat jeon sauces (don't worry about the romanization - everybody here spells it their own way). Lot of people mistake the red one for ketchup, which is why they have to put the big signs on them.
On to Bear's. This place, as meantioned serves up a more traditional-style local plate lunch, which typically means a meat entrée derived from some combination of Japanese, Chinese, and Western food, as well as two ice cream-scoops of rice and mac or tossed salad. The entrees here include teri ahi (yellowfin tuna), fried shrimp, chicken katsu (boneless chicken fried in panko bread crumbs), popcorn-size garlic chicken, mushroom chicken, Japanese-style chicken curry, local-style beef stew, and the old-time local favorite hamburger steak (is there any other state in the union that still eats hamburger steak?). Unfortunately, no Spam. My friend told me that Bear's is so-called because the Prez and CEO of PBHK, Peter Kim, was the placekicker for the Alabama Crimson Tide football team in the early 80s under coach Bear Bryant. I doubt the Bear would would have indulged much in teri ahi though. . .
Here indeed is the teri(yaki) ahi plate, with both mac and toss, which you can get if you ask for it. Although people often say that even locally-produced food is more expensive here than on the mainland, local fish are one exception. Only in Hawai`i can you get a half-pound plus piece of broiled ahi as part of a fast food plate. The teriyaki glaze is sweet, sweet, as is typical here, but laid on with moderation and is balanced by a reasonable dose of garlic. . . And not dry either - how about that for a school cafeteria?
The only other place I've tried here is Lahaina Chicken Company, which serves up your choice of roast pork loin, beef rib, or whole chicken, as well as fried chicken and broiled spareribs. So its basically a Western-style carvery although, sorry, no roast lamb with mint sauce for us locals. I eat here because roast pork is one of my guilty pleasures, and my wife doesn't eat pork, and anyway it's a long story. . .
So here is the roast roast pork plate along with the classic Anglo-Saxon sides of peas, string beans and mashed potatoes. Got a little bit of thyme n' (or?) rosemary rub on the crust, though the crackling is not included, which is probably a good thing for my diet. Can't eat this too often.
Besides the various PBHK hot food operations, there are small sections where you can pick up pre-packaged sushi and such.
Anyway, looking at it from a macro-perspective, it seems from rough observation that business at both the Campus Center and Manoa Gardens is picking over last year. So its good business. Also probably does a better job of catering to the tastes of the various international student groups, though it would be nice if Yummy's would serve some Asian-style breakfasts in the morning. Maybe not necessarily more nutritiounally sound than before, but at least if you're looking for something healthy (which I usually fail to do) you can find it, and it doesn't have to be a tossed salad either. . .
Posted 12 December 2004 - 05:52 PM
Posted 13 December 2004 - 09:58 AM
Posted 16 December 2004 - 01:36 PM
Joan - Yes, like more traditional plate lunch places, Yummy's specializas in the giving huge quantities for the price. And, as you mention, the food is for the most part acceptable to Korean-Koreans, as long as their expectations are at the fast food level. Even the unfamiliar dishes meat jun (which was actually invented by an earlier Honolulu Korean fast food chain, either Ted's or Kim Chee I), while not something you would see much of in Korea is not something that would be totally out of place. I wouldn't be surprised if it starts catching on in Korea.
BTW, here are some articles from the school newspaper, Ka Leo, about the recent changes:
Sodexho negotiating with new food vendors
Sodexho serves up change
Survey key in vendor changes
Posted 19 December 2004 - 07:49 PM