Sunday, September 13, 2009

Argyle Street

I didn't fight my way to the top of the food chain to be a vegetarian!
Fish sauce, soy sauce, rice, fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables - how can food I love so much be this healthy? Lemongrass, Vietnamese mint, long coriander and basil leave... the herbs and the complexity of the ingredients are just a few of the reasons why I love Vietnamese cuisine.

A long time ago, I was gifted with a great Vietnamese cookbook and by the time I was on my 28th recipe, I decided that I must have been Vietnamese in my last food life.

Argyle Street, from Sheridan to Broadway, is one of my favorite Chicago neighborhoods. Authentic grocery stores make it the perfect place to shop if you are planning to cook up a great Asian meal at home. The last time I was there, I bought a large bag of groceries for just under $13.00. Argyle is just off the Red line north of Wrigley Field. The neighborhood, which has attracted Asian immigrants for the past several decades, is a popular tourist destination.

Today's Menu: Take it or Leave it!

My Vietnamese cookbook does not have any recipes for the back-alley food that my friend Bonnie refers to when she talks about Asian food. Exotic meat such as dog meat, snake, soft-shell turtle, deer and domestic goat are widely sold in street-side restaurants. Organs, including lungs, livers, hearts, intestines and bladders of pigs, cows and chickens are sold at an even higher price than their meat. Chicken testicles and undeveloped eggs are stir-fried with vegetables and served as an everyday dish. Bonnie, the ultimate animal lover, will probably not be sharing a good Vietnamese meal with me anytime soon after she reads this. For anyone who does not subscribe to the “When in Rome do as the Romans do” philosophy, close your eyes and take a huge leap of faith. Vietnamese food will amaze you. In Chicago, you have plenty of great options that are designed to please even the most inexperienced palate.

Pho and Bahn Mi

I read a post on Twitter the other day that said "I must have been Vietnamese in another life (hey- that was my line). Pho is like comfort food for me" -- Pho is pretty amazing stuff :) I headed down to Pho 777. The menu is huge with over 70 items to choose from. Items are listed with a number, the Vietnamese name, and a brief description to help anyone not familiar with the cuisine. Located at 1065 W Argyle Street, you be the judge. It was pretty bland but when I added a ton of Vietnamese chili sauce in oil, bean sprouts, lime, peppers and the fresh Vietnamese basil it was much more to my taste. It happened to be another cold day in August – our summer this year has been one of the coldest on record - so pho was definitely comfort food that day and a bargain at $5.95.

One of my favorite stops on Argyle Street is Ba Le Bakery at 5018 N Broadway. I just love the Bahn Mi and crave their BBQ pork on crunchy bread with fresh hot peppers and vegetables. The price: $3.25. Isn’t it amazing that you get cash back on a $5.00 bill? Now that’s a great lunch!

I know there is a lot of debate on which place is better - Ba Le or Nhu Lan. Honestly, I cannot choose. I love the flavor of the BBQ pork at Ba Le and the fact that the sandwich is overstuffed. Nhu Lan on the other hand bakes all of their own bread and the taste of the pickled vegetables makes the sandwich one of my all time favorites.

And yes, for those of you who asked, there is a facebook page for Vietnamese food. Become a fan on

On the Blue line to Wicker Park:

I had been out of the cooking mode since late last year and was starting to really crave Vietnamese food, in particular a well made banh mi. In early May, I saw an article in the Red Eye on banh mi. It featured a sandwich shop called Bon Bon at 2333 West North Avenue in Wicker Park. One Saturday after our long run, we took the Blue line up to check it out.

What started out as a tiny carryout-only counter had now dialed up to a restaurant with not only great atmosphere (we sat in the front window) but also really fantastic service. Bon Bon uses Nhu Lan’s bread and serves a variety of banh mi including char siu pork, gingered chicken and portobella for $3.95.They also make a highly addictive version which includes a salty pate and layers of head cheese and Vietnamese ham.

Hot or cold, whatever your taste is for Vietnamese food, these restaurants deliver a great Chicago cheap eat and a super healthy meal. Remember, I am all about healthy except when it comes to ice cream 

Vietnamese at Home:

One of my favorite Vietnamese dishes to cook at home is Bun, Vietnamese vermicelli-style noodles made from rice flour, water, and salt. I have to confess that I love Bun so much that I will go for a week eating it and just switching out the toppings and vegetables. You can also use the ingredients to make spring rolls.

One of the reasons Vietnamese food is so healthy is that the noodles and vegetables are always served in abundant amounts, while the meat is served in a much smaller, taste-sized portion.

Don’t confuse rice vermicelli with mung bean vermicelli, also called bean threads. Rice vermicelli does not need to be soaked and it cooks in just 3- 5 minutes. Do not undercook the noodles as they need to be fully cooked to absorb the flavors of the dish - but don’t overcook them either.

Slice the lettuce (make sure that it is the freshest and crispest lettuce you can find) and add a little shredded carrot, sliced Daikon radish or jicama. If you want to quick-pickle the veggies in rice vinegar and sugar, it gives them a little extra kick.

For fresh herbs, check out your local Asian market. You can substitute mint, cilantro and basil if you can’t find Vietnamese coriander and other fresh herbs like red perilla and lemon balm. What I love about my favorite Vietnamese market is that I can smell and then select the fresh herbs I want to put into this dish. I get different ones all the time, depending on what is fresh and available.

The toppings can vary from warm Lemongrass Shrimp to Beef, Pork or Stir-fried vegetables. I love Vietnamese grilled pork. The secret ingredient is the caramel sauce which is used in a marinate along with fish sauce, soy sauce, salt and vegetable oil. After the pork sits in this for 20 minutes, it is cooked on a very hot grill. Another good marinate is made of minced lemongrass, minced garlic, fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, lime juice, and oil.

Whatever recipe you select, make sure that you use the best cuts of meat and the freshest shellfish, herbs and vegetables. I love to make this dish in the summer when a wide variety of vegetables are available at my local farmers market here in Lake Bluff.

When you assemble a bowl of bun, you start with handfuls of vegetables, shredded lettuce and herbs and then add fresh noodles and the caramelized pork or other toppings. Finish off with some nuoc cham and chopped peanuts and turn the noodles over a few times and mix.

I have some fantastic recipes for both bun and banh mi so if you want to try them, send me an email.

And remember…The only trouble I have with living alone is that it's always my turn to do the dishes.