In a city where every great dish seems to have a gazillion words written about it, Argyle Street is the land of a thousand discoveries. Down every neon-lit block is another snug Thai, Vietnamese or Chinese restaurant, each one claiming to be better the next: Smudged windows display quippy Time Out write-ups, stamps of approval from Check Please, glowing Sun-Times and Tribune reviews or the best, a toothy photo of the Hungry Hound.
After taste-testing my way through several of the hit-or-miss restaurants, I think I've found a sure-fire winner. The bites of all bites resides at Hai Yen, 1055 W. Argyle St., a Vietnamese and Chinese combination restaurant that makes every other morsel of Asian food I've ever tossed back seem sub par in comparison.
I rarely know where I'm headed when I make my way through Little Vietnam. Sometimes I swing through the Asian grocery store and plunge my nose deep into a pile of fresh Japanese basil. No other grocer in the city seems to have such vibrant green leaves, and all the exotic ingredients on the shelves makes for a happy shopper. Next up comes the dusty teashop, where my usual MO is this: describe my latest ailments to the suspicious shopkeeper only to be greeted with sheer delight once she realizes that I have major problems that need fixing. Nothing like a good old ancient box of tea to bring me out of my tummy doldrums, she indicates with a toothless grin.
This past weekend, though, I chose to eat dinner at Hai Yen. The superb reviews in the front window weren't even the half of it. Lisa and I rolled in because the place was packed solid on a Sunday night and all the other joints we'd passed along the way were mostly dead. If the natives love it then so do the Lis and MST.
We passed by tables full of magical smelling food on our way to a discreet corner table where we were presented with a crazy menu a mile long. Everything was written in Vietnamese with a brief American translation. Needless to say, it didn't take long for Lisa and me to decide on the chao tom
, big hunks of ground shrimp wrapped around a stalk of sugar cane and grilled with salt, pepper and lime.
What sold us on the dish was the addition of rice paper and vegetables for an extra couple bucks. You can literally take a paper thin, ghost white piece of rice paper, sling in a couple springs of leafy greens, fresh mint, bean sprouts and chunks of ground shrimp and roll it into a little mini Asian burrito. The capper is dunking it in the sweet and sour fish sauce and shoving it down in one fell swoop. It's truly a blissful creation that cannot be topped.
When our shrimp fried rice (with extra egg, mind you) came out a few seconds later, Lisa and I thought we had died and gone to heaven. I not sure I've ever managed to maneuver a set of chopsticks that quickly. Just as a small war emerged between our sticks for the last few bits of mini shrimp our cha gio tom cua showed face. We were on a shrimp kick, and these delicious Vietnamese fried eggrolls were no exception. Filled with shrimp, crab, pork, mushroom and cellophane noodles, every nibble was a clear indication that the Vietnamese chefs are far superior to the Chinese. Rice paper kills wontons every time.
The Final Rave: The minute you sit down, order up a glass of the tangy homemade limeade. It washes down the seafood like a champ.
Keep It Going:
Do it: Argyle L Stop
It's the stop you never think of when you're trying to come up with a culinary adventure. Hop off here and wander into any of the bakeries along Argyle for some cream buns; you will not be disappointed.
Drink it: Pasteur
The food gets a little more upscale at this cheeky North Side Vietnamese restaurant, and so does the price. Try the lemongrass martini or the lychee nut if you're looking for something more exotic.
Eat it: Tank Noodle
This corner noodle shop is always packed to the brim. That is always a good sign.
Get crazy with it: Ho Chi Minh City
This is the culinary capitol Vietnam and there is no better way to explore the hundreds of food stalls than on the back of a scooter. Winter has hit Chicago and it's right about time to hit the road.