Chicago is home to a wide variety of ethnic neighborhoods and touring them can be a wonderful introduction to other cultures and other foods.
Tet, the huge Vietnamese celebration of the lunar New Year, is coming up on February 3. Why don’t you use that as an excuse to explore Argyle Street and introduce yourself to the sights and tastes of Vietnam?
First stop? Lunch. The Argyle and Broadway neighborhood is home to a large variety of Vietnamese restaurants. My favorite is Le’s Pho. Located in a small shopping mall just south of Argyle Street on Broadway, this storefront restaurant is worth the effort to find. The owner is friendly and willing to help walk you through the extensive menu.
Try the banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake) for an appetizer. This pancake, made with turmeric and rice flour, is filled with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts and arrives with a heaping platter of greens and bowls of dipping sauce. To eat it properly, slice the pancake into strips and then tear off a piece of lettuce leaf. Wrap the pancake in the lettuce and add any herbs you like. Dip the filled lettuce in the dipping sauce and enjoy.
Follow the pancake with bowls of pho (pronounce “fuh”). Pho is essentially beef or chicken noodle soup, but that description hardly does it justice. The broth is rich and flavorful and filled with rice noodles. Beware… these are large bowls! Greens, bean sprouts, and limes arrive with the steaming bowls. Feel free to add as much (or little) garnish as you like and squeeze some lime juice on top. There are plenty of other restaurants in this area that also serve excellent food. Some others to try include Tank Noodle and Pho Viet.
After lunch it’s time to do some shopping. From Le’s Pho, head next door to Tai Nam Food Market. This small market is filled with fresh produce, an abundance of fresh and frozen fish and Asian cookware. I love to head here to stock up on fresh greens with huge bunches of beautiful basil, mint, and cilantro available for just a few dollars. Have you ever tried a dragon fruit? Even if you never cut one open, they are beautiful to look at and can be found here along with other Asian fruits not normally seen in our grocery stores.
Next head to Qideas Plants and Gifts. The first room of this store has a large selection of bamboo plants and ceramic planters, but the next room is my favorite. Inside is a lovely selection of Asian tableware as well as other handcrafts, from small, embroidered purses to large, intricate wooden model ships, which are very similar to the ones I’ve seen for sale on the streets of Hanoi.
Before heading home, there is one last stop to make: Ba Le Sandwich. This bakery and deli specializes in banh mi sandwiches, the Vietnamese version of a hero. Pick-up some sandwiches for an easy dinner after a day of shopping or some steamed buns filled with sausage and quail’s eggs for a quick snack. There is also a case of exquisite chocolates if you are looking for a little something sweet to end the day.
Mark the beginning of The Year of the Cat by exploring a new section of the city and discovering something new. Chuc Mung Nam Moi! (Happy New Year!)