I've been feeling more like Stella R. Tois than Zinny lately. I just can't stop drinking beer, which is a big change in my Bordeaux-or-bust attitude. It's partially due to a week Steamer and I spent in the Virgin Islands in January, where I worked on my tan and my ability to stay one-for-one with him on dollar Budweisers (leaving me burnt and smitten with the cheap stuff). But it's mostly due to the drinking limbo I've found myself in recently: too cold for white, too tired of red, too perfect solution...beer.
But I still don't know much about pairing food and beer, which is why I took a detour on my way to a casual Saturday night dinner with Steamer at Fan Si Pan, 1618 W. Chicago Avenue. I'm blessed/cursed in that my neighborhood liquor shops sell mostly Unibroue and Bohemia, neither of which seemed like the right fit for a basil-heavy dinner of Vietnamese food.
But before hitting up Sam's Wine and Spirits, I picked up one quick fact: Vietnamese cuisine allows for a broader range of complements than Thai or Indian food, as it swaps tricky heat and spice for mellow lemongrass and lime. I hit Sam's ready to be schooled by the helpful staff...then couldn't find help for the life of me. After resigning myself to the fact that I wasn't the only confused boozehound looking to pick up a drink at 6 p.m., I made an executive decision between the six-pack of 33 (Vietnamese, but warm) and two similarly light (but chilled) bottles of the Japanese Asahi Super Dry.
Lager in hand, I made my way south. I had been to Fan Si Pan once before, a good year and a half ago, shortly after it opened. Wooed by eclair-size spring rolls, the pervasive lime-green of the place and the idea of healthy "fast food," I vowed I'd come back. And while my memories were super-fresh, the place was a little stale.
Trying to stave off judgment, I trained my focus on the large menu board rather than on the fact that the place has lost its luster. After breezing through the expanded menu ("Vietnamese-inspired fare with a fun touch"), we settled on two shrimp spring rolls, a vegetarian sandwich and a cup of vegetable yellow curry soup with coconut.
On the plus side, it cost just $18. On the weird side, it was prepared in a sort of franchised way—by two bored-looking boys, one of whom miraculously rolled our spring rolls without taking his right hand off his cell phone. After being allowed to pick something off the iPod (Andrew Bird) and assuring the unoccupied employee three times that yes, he had given us a punch card, we took our tray to a table, poured some Asahi in our Dixie cups and dug in.
I started with the hoagie-like spring roll, topping every bite or two with a drop of something from the assortment of condiments—Sriracha, wasabi sauce, sweet and sour—on the table. Interspersed with sips of Asahi—light, none-too-flavorful and pleasantly carbonated—the pockets of lime and mint asserted themselves just fine, and the shrimp was good and fresh.
I snagged a sip of Steamer's soup, which tasted great but looked a little Ramen-y, and split our sandwich in two. It was supposed to be some sort of veggies topped with marinated radish, carrots, sliced jalapeno, cilantro and mayo, but we found ourselves staring at what was basically a French roll with a few lettuce leaves, cucumber and something that looked like a cantaloupe slice but we think was a tomato. It made me glad I bought two beers instead of one.
But it made me wonder why I brought the beers at all. I love a good meal, and it's even better with a good drink, but every now and then I stumble upon a BYO that doesn't seem to warrant the presence of anything stronger than water. Fan Si Pan seems to fit in that category—a good place for takeout, a fine place for a quick bite with a friend, but a place where drinking feels as natural as smoking in movie theaters. I'm a Whoppers and Orange Slice girl at the movies, and when it comes to beer and Vietnamese food, I think I'll give some other spots a whirl.
Zinny Fandel's tales of living the (mostly) BYOB life are intended to be attempted at home and in the community, preferably at BYOB restaurants. If you know of a BYOB spot she simply must tipple at, let her know.