I bought my first Vietnamese cookbook almost 20 years ago - Foods of Vietnam by Nicole Routhier. I cooked her version of the spring roll, called Cha Gio. It’s made with shrimp and ground pork and is served with a dip made with Fish sauce called nuoc mam. When mixed with lime juices, chilies, sugar, garlic and vinegar, nuoc mam becomes Nuoc Cham. Nuoc Cham is to the Vietnamese what soy sauce is to the Chinese. One bite and I fell in love with Vietnamese cooking and have been hooked ever since. I often imagine my brother Mickey, who served in the Army in Vietnam, enjoying great eats and taking in the beauty of the countryside. I think some day, we have to travel there together.
I took a Vietnamese cooking class in the Argyle neighborhood of Chicago about 15 years ago before many people knew anything about Vietnamese food. Thanks to the internet and a huge interest in the culinary world as a whole, Vietnamese cooking is now known and loved by a lot of great home cooks.It was at this cooking class that I learned certain things like the only brand of Fish Sauce to buy is Squid based. It made a huge difference in the taste of my Nuoc Cham. What I love most about Vietnamese cooking is that the combination of complementary ingredients form new and unique flavors with contrasting textures. These are some of the things that cooking classes teach you that you can’t learn from studying a cookbook. I am a great believer of both culinary education and practical cooking. I have learned after many years of cooking to look at a recipe and determine if it is great or just OK. Like anything, it takes practice and it comes with time.
Vietnamese cuisine can be basically divided into three categories, each pertaining to a specific region. Northern Vietnam’s most notable dishes, such as pho and banh cuon, have their birthplace in the North but more notable in the South. The North’s cuisine is more traditional and less diverse in choosing spices and ingredients. The cuisine of South Vietnam has been influenced historically by the cuisines of southern Chinese immigrants and French colonists. Southerns prefer sweet flavors. As a region of more diversity, the South’s cuisine uses a wider variety of herbs. The cuisine of Central Vietnam is quite different, It’s cuisine is more spicy.
Not long after, I discovered Le Colonial, an up-scale French-Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago that recaptures colonial Southeast Asia from the 1920s and looks like it is straight from the movie The Lover. I was on an expense account back then and often took clients there or had lunch with friends on a Saturday afternoon in the winter. At 937 North Rush Street, it remains my all time #1 splurge restaurant in Chicago and the special place my 4 sisters took me to celebrate my birthday last year.
The restaurant offers a unique cooking class and at 10 students per class, you get a lot of one-on-one time with the Chefs. They go along to the Tai Nam Food Market on Argyle Street and take the students through the store, giving them tips on how to navigate their way through the market so they see and try everything so as not to be intimidated by it.
Last year, when I was working full time, I traveled on the L with a young girl whose family was from Vietnam. It was so much fun to talk with her about her experiences living in Chicago and her family’s great love of Vietnamese food. I loved the L. I had so many travel mates from different cultures – a Polish woman in her 80’s that survived the war and loved working at the airport to help foreigners who come to this country, two lovely women who I practiced my Spanish with every day, and of course the young woman from Vietnam. We only went 3 stops together so we had to talk fast. That was the fun of it. There is so much to be said for the art of traveling this way. So many people who do not venture from the comfort of their own car have no clue what they are missing.
The first of this year has me looking for Chicago Cheap Eats to share with others who want a good bargain or don’t have the cash but still want really great food.
My first cheap eats visit was to a Vietnamese bakery called Nhu-Lan at 2612 W Lawrence Ave. I am in search of a Bahn Mi, which is Ho Chi Minh City's favorite fast lunch food . This little storefront sits unassumingly on Lawrence Avenue. When I mentioned it to the guy the street at the antique store,he didn’t even realize it was there.
The Bahn Mi sandwiches without a doubt are the best I have ever had and I have sampled and made many.
First off. the Vietnamese dedication to excellent, fresh baguettes is what makes these sandwiches great. Using stale bread is the worst offense a banh mi maker can commit.
There is perhaps no simpler, quicker or cheaper ($3.50) a way to sample together the salty, sour, sweet and spicy flavors of Vietnamese food than with a banh mi sandwich. Almost all varieties are accessorized with carrots pickled in sweetened vinegar, cucumber and coriander (cilantro).
There are so many aficionados of this sandwich, the Banh Mi even has it’s own facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Banh-Mi-Viet/54310534360
The Banh Mi was introduced to Vietnam by the French in the early 20th century. The first banh mi (pronounced BUN-mee) was made of just bread, butter and ham or duck or goose liver pâté. Over time, the Vietnamese adapted the banh mi and made it their own.
On Nhu-Lan’s website, they talk about their bread… “The homemade dough is proofed on site, then scored with a knife to give each loaf that trademark split down the middle. Each giant rack holds 450 small loaves and they are placed into giant custom ovens all at once, set onto a track across the top of the oven. Once inside, they bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, constantly spinning on the giant racks to aerate and bake each loaf evenly.” This summary reminded me of the reviews that many Mexican familys write on the history of brewing their tequila. Nhu-Lan sells their bread to many other Vietnamese restaurants in the city of Chicago.
A deal at buy 5 get one free, I tried the #4 Thit Nuong - Lemongrass Grilled Pork. The flavors were fantastic and #1 on my place of Vietnamese restaurants (besides Le Colonial) to return to and send all of my friends.
Lawrence Street Bonus Find:
Celebrating 30 years in 2005, Griffins and Gargoyles has been directly importing antique furniture & treasures from Europe since 1975. This unique store specializes in pine, including armoires, bookcases, tables and a new line of custom furniture & painted pieces. They are located in Lincoln Square in an old dairy building with a paved-brick parking lot situated behind a century-old iron fence.
“We offer excellent merchandise and excellent unusual pieces from all over Europe,'' says proprietor Ray Donovan. Specializing in unfinished and highly waxed and refurbished antique furniture, this two-floor warehouse is a delight to visit. Most of the furniture is from Western Europe and was created between 1880 and 1930, but there are usually some earlier pieces as well as some ironwork and antique toys.
Since I worked for Maggie Farley at Shops on Scranton in Lake Bluff for so long, I loved these guys and was also happy to tell them about Nhu-Lan Bakery just down the street. They didn't have a clue it was even in the neighborhood.
Both of them in the West Lawrence Avenue neighborhood and great finds for anyone looking for fantastic quality at affordable price.