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Category Archives: Vietnamese

Good But Not Gr8

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Welcome to Mastication Monologues!  If this is your first time here, prepare to be amazed with some of the most unique and delicious food adventures you’ve ever seen.  If you’re coming back, then thank you so much for your support and your views.  Remember to always tell your friends about my reviews as well.  So, today’s post deals with a cuisine that I never really dabbled seriously in until recently:  Vietnamese food.  For a majority of my life, I ate mostly Chinese or Japanese food, but then I started dating my lovely gf Janice who just so happened to live next to Little Vietnam in Chicago.  Therefore, the amount of Vietnamese restaurants I have tried now have increased greatly, and Pho 888 is one of them.

If you walk down Argyle street, you’ll be beckoned by every storefront since there is a plethora of Vietnamese eateries and Chinese bakeries like the iconic Tank Noodle shop or Bale Sandwiches, but I wanted to try Pho 888 since I had heard good things about it.  Plus, it didn’t seem as Hollywood as the more popular eateries.IMG_6026 Janice, Michael, and I hit this place up back in December a.k.a. life in the Ice Age.  So, they both wanted to get the quintessential Vietnamese dish, pho, but I was in the mood for something different.  Inside, the place was super simply furnished with plenty of chili sauces and seasonings on the table.  It’s literally a dining room and a kitchen.IMG_4917 The menu was huge like any good Asian restaurant, and the prices were pretty cheap (range of 4-12 bucks per item). IMG_4916 After a bit of deliberation, we made our choices and waited for the food to come out.  The first dish we sampled were the gỏi cuốn or “salad rolls” in English.  They consisted of bún (vermicelli noodles), cooked shrimp, herbs, greens, and it was all wrapped up in bánh tráng (rice paper). IMG_4918 These rolls were served at room temperature and were a refreshing alternative to fried spring rolls that sometimes can be too greasy.  The tương xào (hoisin sauce) that was served on the side had peanut pieces in it, but all of it put together was delectable.  The sticky rice paper was strong enough to hold all of the ingredients within its insanely thin cocoon.  Everything from the shrimp to the fresh cilantro and lemongrass made this dish really pop, and dipping the rolls in the sweet hoisin sauce blended well with the herbal notes from the vegetables.  As for the vermicelli, it provided a much needed body to the rolls and a solid foundation for the house party that was happening in my mouth.  The other appetizer we got, the fried shrimp balls, were quite the opposite experience. IMG_4920 While they looked scrumptious on the outside with their golden brown exteriors with an accompaniment of greens, pickled radish, and some sweet and sour dipping sauce on the side, what we found inside was horrifyingly gross.  IMG_4922I don’t know what was inside them, but it was like eating pre-chewed eggs mixed with seafood with the consistency of cream cheese.  I’ll just leave you with that image.   On the plus side, my main course came out soon thereafter I tasted one of these horrid appetizers.  I got the chả tôm (shrimp cake) and pork combo that was paired with more noodles, greens, pickled radish and carrot salad, fresh cucumbers, rice paper, and a bowl of warm water to make my own gỏi cuốn.  IMG_4923I tried a bit of the shrimp cake, but I really didn’t like it.  It was more fishy tasting than the fresh shrimp from the salad rolls we ate earlier in the meal, and it just seemed oddly artificial with its orange, spongy, Nerf-like interior yet wrinkled, glistening exterior.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on one plate

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on one plate

 

That cake ain't right

That cake ain’t right

So, I focused more on eating the seasoned pork that was stir fried in a chili sauce that had plenty of personality to make up for the awkward shrimp cakes on my plate.  So, I set to making my first Vietnamese spring roll.  First, I had to take one of the rice paper disks and submerge it in the warm water.IMG_4924  Once wet, I placed it on my plate, and I placed my ingredients in the middle of the nearly invisible Vietnamese version of a tortilla.IMG_4927  Then came the tricky part.  Rolling this rice paper up into a presentable roll was way more difficult than making a taco since the edges of the rice paper were incredibly sticky which meant that if you didn’t position your toppings right while rolling, then you risked a lopsided roll that will explode all over your hands/clothes when you bite into it.  After some trial and error, I finally got the hang of it, and it was an interactive meal that I really enjoyed.  As for Michael’s and Janice’s pho, I found it to be just below Tank Noodle’s version since it seemed to be a bit more on the salty side, but it still was delicious and kept us warm against the frigid conditions outside.

So if you’re looking for a real authentic Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago that may not be the best but does have simple and fresh food for reasonable prices, check out Pho 888.
Pho 888 on Urbanspoon

Un-Ba-Le-Vable Flavors

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Welcome one and all to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Things on my blog have been picking up as of late since I’ve survived my first semester teaching in upper academia, so these posts are keeping me sane in the flurry of bureaucracy and final exam writing.  I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I like writing them!  Today’s post once again brings me to Chicago’s Uptown Little Vietnam neighborhood.  It’s a diverse enclave of Chicago’s ethnic rainbow which boasts a plethora of eateries serving a wide variety of foods from Far East and Southeast Asia.  However, the Vietnamese community is the largest; ergo, I’ve sampled just the tip of the pho iceberg when it comes to fully exploring their culinary representatives.  Ba Le Sandwich shop is one of the best and most popular eateries in the area, and my first visit there was fantastic.

Ba Le’s storefront is at the heart of Little Vietnam at the intersection of Argyle and Broadway and opposite the iconic Tank Noodle where you can get some hot pho soup to chase this newly arrived cold weather away.IMG_4846  Walking into the establishment, past the small Buddhist shrine at the entrance, I was greeted with a sleek and modern interior that boasted a full wall of treats like freshly cut coconuts, Vietnamese head cheese or giò thủ , and a large vareity of chè or sweet pudding/jello treats.  IMG_4217IMG_4212 IMG_4214 IMG_4213On the right hand side of the shop, there were sushi roll packs next to a mini French bakery that was bursting at the seams with macaron mini-mountains.  IMG_4216Delectable remnants of the French colonization of Indochina as they were, I was interested in something more substantial and what Ba Le is known for:  banh mi.  If you want a historical explanation of the sandwich, hit up my Portland food truck adventure here.  Looking over the menu, they also offered side dishes like the famous gỏi cuốn translucent shrimp rolls, noodle salads, fried rice, and egg rolls.  As for the banh mi sandwiches, I went for the Chinese Pork or xá xíu ($4.95), and they do cater to vegetarians with banh mi, btw!   The sandwich was quite big for the price as I took it to one of Ba Le’s window counters you can eat at while watching the locals go about their daily business.  I wasn’t doing much people watching because I was severely distracted and gobsmacked at how delicious this sandwich was.IMG_4218  It was the culinary equivalent of Saul, future St. Paul, being knocked off his horse and converting to Christianity after hearing the voice of God. Oh_Lawd___by_deadprez132001 I don’t know what it was that made this sandwich stand out from the thousands of other sandwiches I tried.  Perhaps it was the extremely fresh French baguette that was just the right ratio of crispness to softness.  IMG_4220Maybe my weakness for mayonnaise combined with the fresh-from-the-garden cilantro, jalapeno peppers, daikon radish, onions, and carrots.  I think the pork helped as well since it was served in the char siu (叉燒) style which originates in China.  It is basically barbecued pork that is roasted while being coated with honey, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, and five spice powder.  What you get is a tender cut of pork that is both sweet and slightly salty, a perfect fauna compliment to the unspoiled flora of my unwrapped Garden of Eden.  Long story short, it was ecstasy in my mouth, and it wasn’t very heavy compared to many Western sub sandwiches.

So if you want a heavenly bite of Vietnamese culture for hellishly low prices, check out Ba Le Sandwich Shop in Chicago!
Ba Le Sandwich Shop on Urbanspoon

I’ve Seen and Eaten Things, Man…Delicious Things

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Goooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooood morning, Mastication Monologues readers!  Today’s post deals with a country’s cuisine that I have over the years become more acquainted with due to the increased prevalence of said eateries in the Chicagoland area and throughout the world.  While Japanese and Chinese food are the two most popular forms of Asian cuisine in America, Southeast Asia, specifically Thai and Vietnamese food, has thrown its hat into the ring with some wonderful dishes.  While I do like my Thai food as shown on my blog, today’s restaurant is a cozy Vietnamese place called Nha Hang Viet Nam in Chicago.

As I said before, Vietnamese food has quickly grown into the ever-expanding and shifting profile of the American culinary landscape.  Some of the key dishes that have assisted this jump in popularity include Gỏi cuốn or spring rolls and the banh mi sandwiches which could be considered one of the original forms of Asian fusion.  At Nha Hang Viet Nam, I expected that they would have these, but anything else would be a mystery to me. The outside of the restaurant blended in with the rest of the Little Saigon area around Argyle, and yet seemed a bit like a place that they would hold a scene from the Deer Hunter at due to the bars on some the windows.IMG_3196  The shady exterior gave way to a welcoming interior that was almost like walking into a family’s kitchen it was that small.  Not only did the size add to the intimacy of the establishment, but the family was all sitting at one big table waiting to serve us.  We had the place to ourselves essentially aside from another Vietnamese couple.  Upon going over the menu, I had no clue where to start as they had everything from the aforementioned spring rolls and sandwiches along with soups, noodles, vermicelli, fried rice, various meats (fish, pork, beef), and desserts.  While I was pouring over the vast menu, I found an item on the drink menu that caught my eye:  fresh pennyworth juice ($3.50).  What is pennyworth juice?  No, it doesn’t cost a penny (although it probably would in Vietnam), but it has been used in Indian, Chinese, and African traditional medicine.  In Vietnamese, it’s called rau má or “mother vegetable”, and I’m not quite sure what sort of motherly comforts this drink brought to me during my meal.  When it came out, it looked like something from one of the recent body detox diets. IMG_3191 Not only was it frothy, but it had a deep verdant hue that intrigued me.  While I’ve had good luck picking random drinks of menus in Jamaican and Cuban restaurants, I wasn’t quite sure if I won the grand prize with this drink.IMG_3190  I appreciated how cold it was compliments of the ice, but the taste was complex and semi-indescribable.  It had some grassy notes yet a herbal, semi-spicy after taste that could be likened to cilantro almost.  It was a glass of funk that set the stage for my appetizer:  the bánh xèo or “sizzling cake” ($7.95).  Our waiter was incredulous that I ordered it just for myself since he said it was for two people, and he was right in terms of the size.IMG_3192  However, he never met someone like me with a Cookie Monster appetite when hungry.  As I started down at the large yellow pancake, I wondered how to eat it since it had a plethora of mint leaves, cilantro leaves, and lettuce leaves on the side.  Our waiter then explained that I could cut a piece of the pancake, wrap it up in a lettuce leaf, and then dip it in the fish sauce on the side, similar to the ssam bap I tried in Korea.  The pancake itself was made of rice flour and tumeric, and then on the inside there were plenty of bean sprouts, shrimp, and pork. IMG_3193 I tried a piece of it by itself, and it was a rich, buttery, fried piece of heaven that only got better when dipped in the thin, sweet fish sauce.  Slowly but surely, I completed my search and destroy mission against the pancake that was as big as my face.  When the dust settled, my main entree, the com bo nuong or steamed rice with grilled beef, came out.IMG_3194  It came with a delicious, salty miso that had bits of cilantro floating on the surface and rings of green scallion bobbing about the bowl.  As for the dish, the beef was savory and juicy.  I pumped it up a notch with some red chili sauce to satisfy my love for spicy food.  The mysterious part of the meal was the noodles on the side.IMG_3195  While I could ascertain that they were indeed noodles, I couldn’t tell what type of meat was lurking between the strands, perhaps tripe.  It was also a mostly dry side with a generous dusting of some type of powder that I guessed could possibly be dried mung bean or soy beans.  It wasn’t the highlight of the meal, but I wasn’t complaining at that point.

So if you want to try simple but delicious Vietnamese food for great prices in a hidden gem, try Nha Hang Viet Nam!  Đi đi mau!

Nha Hang Viet Nam on Urbanspoon

Goooooooood Afternoon, Vietnam! (Portland, Part 5)

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So today’s post is going to be short and savory like the meal I will be entailing.  While I decided to have one of my spooky baked treats from Voodoo Doughnuts for breakfast on Friday morning, I decided that lunch would take place at one of the many food cart villages that can be found throughout Portland.  The concierge told me when I checked in to check out Alberta Street’s food carts, but it was a bit too far out of the way for my liking.  So, I remembered that I passed by a large pod of carts when going down SW 5th Ave. to the Pioneer Square stop in the heart of downtown Portland.  Even though it was raining, it didn’t put a damper on my experience.

As I made my way down the block long and deep hamlet of food hawkers, there was so much affordable food diversity it made me want to fall to my knees and praise the sustenance gods.  After living in a monoculture for a year like Korea, you really appreciate the diversity of the USA. IMG_2655 However, Korea was represented with two carts that seemed to push both fusion and traditional Korean cuisine.IMG_2659IMG_2658  Along with noms from the Land of the Morning Calm, they had Indian, Mexican, Greek, Iraqi, Italian, Chinese, American, Thai, and Vietnamese eateries.IMG_2589 IMG_2588 The last option would end up being my lunch for the day as I finally chalked off a basic foodie necessity in the great book of “Food You Must Try”:  banh mi.  For those who are new to Vietnamese cuisine, a banh mi is essentially a Vietnamese sandwich, but it is much more than a sliced piece of bread stuffed with a plethora of mouth-watering ingredients.  It was born out of Vietnamese subjugation by the French during the Age of Colonialism.  When two very different cultures come in contact, you can be certain if anything will be exchanged, it will be different types of food and drink.  While the Vietnamese introduced the French to indigenous specialties like pho, the French brought their wizardry with baked goods to the people of Vietnam.  The ubiquitous French baguette quickly became integrated into the Vietnamese food landscape in the form of banh mi.  The locals took the baguette recipe, compliments of their European overlords, and tweaked it to have a slightly lighter consistency than the ones found back in La Patrie (France).  After that, the Vietnamese people filled these baguettes with Vietnamese ingredients to give birth to one of the most famous examples of fusion food before it became a buzzword coined by Mr. Puck.  I had never tried it before much to the dismay of some of my friends, so when I saw the very unassuming Vietnamese cart that didn’t even have a sign up, I knew I had to try it.IMG_2661  If they didn’t have to advertise, they must be good.  The head cook beckoned me over with a hello and a smile, and after looking over the large list of banh mi, spring rolls, and pho, I got the grilled pork banh mi ($3).  As soon as I finished my transaction, I turned around to see a crowd behind me, so perhaps I either beat the lunch rush or led the charge to try something new.  It eventually was handed to me, and it looked absolutely beautiful. IMG_2664 It tasted just as sublime as well.  First, I crunched my way through the crispy crust of the baguette to the chewy white interior which really did taste airier than a French baguette.  I then reached the promised land of juicy grilled pork, onions, verdant peppers, pickled carrots, and plenty of cilantro for an herbal punch right in the taste buds. All of this, combined with the sweet and spicy Sriracha sauce, left me greatly satisfied and ready to take on the rest of the day.  I highly recommend banh mi and checking out Portland’s food cart scene.

Somewhat Hoarble

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Welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Even though I recently talked about my visit to a Vietnamese eatery to sample some pho (See Phonomenal), today I will be talking about my dining experience at Pho Hoa located in Itaewon on Itaewon-Ro heading straight out of exit 2 for about 10 minutes.  Here is their website.

While my friends Ravi and Carolyn were in town, we were running all about Seoul seeing the sights, but with all of that traveling we managed to work up a serious appetite.  Ravi wanted to try this Korean vegetarian place that consisted of traditional side dishes served to you in a tapas style meal.  However, when we got there, there was a wait for a table since it was a very small establishment, so we decided to walk back up the street to find another place to eat.  We eventually settled on Pho Hoa since it was close by.  All I knew is that I wasn’t going to eat pho again, so I looked over their rice dishes.  During my search, I did notice that the pho bowls they offered were more authentic than Pho Mein’s they provided you with cilantro, jalapenos, bean sprouts etc.  I settled on the pork rice in the end (10,000 Won) along with a Saigon beer (4,000 Won).

When both of them came out, I was more interested in the beer since it looked more intriguing.

Charlie don't drink good beer

Charlie don’t drink good beer

However, I didn’t have my hopes up since Asia really isn’t known for their quality brews.  I was correct when I found out I was sipping on a pale lager that had a very small head and really devoid of any flavor.  As for my food, I found it as unspectacular since I recognized the bulgogi (which is beef, not pork) residing next to the mound of white rice. IMG_1914 At least the egg roll was Vietnamese, and it was delicious with its golden, flaky wrapping and fresh veggie innards.  One of the main reasons why I disliked this meal is because it was so bland and the rice was not fully cooked.  Thankfully, after a couple generous dollops of Sriracha sauce, I ate every spicy spoonful.  The meat was a bit better than average since it had an interesting sweet aftertaste, but some pieces were a bit on the dry side.  I could tell this was a plate specifically designed with Korean audiences in mind due to the lack of severely spicy elements that are more common to Southeast Asian cuisine.  I’m sure if I got one of their pho bowls, I would have been more satisfied.  Overall, it was an average meal that could have been better if I went with one of the safer options like pho.

Not Phonomenal

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Hello and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I will be talking about a partially failed food mission that ended up turning out alright in the end.  At first, I was planning on trying Taco Cielo in the south of Incheon, but for some reason, they were closed on a Saturday afternoon (because you totally wouldn’t make any money then).  Not to be deterred, I knew that O’Malley’s Irish Pub was right next door, and I wouldn’t have minded sinking my choppers into a juicy burger or some other form of deep-fried bar food.  Unfortunately, their sign said that they didn’t open until 6 pm.  Talk about being on a roll.  I ended up going to a Vietnamese restaurant I saw during my walk to Taco Cielo called Pho Mein.  It’s located across the street from the main Shinsegae Department Store in Incheon.  Here is their website (sorry, it’s only in Korean) http://phomein.com/Main/.IMG_0449

Even though I suffered some initial setbacks, this gourmand was gunning to try Korea’s take on a Vietnamese classic dish, and I was pleased when I first walked through the door.  Although it didn’t possess the Southeast Asian hustle and bustle charms of Tank Noodle like back home in Chicago’s Argyle neighborhood, a.k.a. Little Saigon, (See:  “Getting Tanked“) its slick, modern decor made for a very comforting dining experience.IMG_0452  I decided to order a large bowl of the large spicy pho (12,000 Won).  I was kind of curious to see if the Koreans were actually going to make it spicy or just Kimchi spicy which is quite mild when it comes to bringing the heat.  Not only do they serve pho, but they also have fried rice dishes and meat dishes like fried cashew chicken.  While I was waiting, I saw that they had a bottle of hoisin sauce and another bottle of red chili sauce along with chopsticks, spoons, and napkins.  They also provided me with a complimentary carafe of cold green tea which was quite refreshing during this increasingly humid Korean summer.   My giant bowl of soup quickly came out to my table in probably 10 minutes.  I could then tell that this very flavorful dish was subdued for Korean tastes aside from the spice level.

Uhh, what the phok?

Uhh, what the phok?

 That was the first surprise as the devilishly red beef broth provided me with a good burn that I have been missing in Korea for so long now.  The thin and long rice noodles were expertly made al dente, and the thin slices of beef melted in my mouth.  The more subdued parts of the meal were exemplified in the garnishes that were provided with my bowl of pho.  I was supplied with yellow pickled radish pieces, sweet pickled onions, and raw bean sprouts instead of the more fanciful flavors of cilantro, lime, and jalapenos.  The lack of traditional garnishes reflected the Korean adaptation of the Vietnamese classic for local palates to my great displeasure.  Plus, compared to Tank Noodle’s version of pho, there was no tripe or sweet basil floating in the broth which definitely took away a certain exotic element from the food.

Overall, I was pleased with the amount of food that I got for the price, and it was a solid meal.  However, the fact that it was Koreanized took away from its potential to be a truly great dish.  So if you’re looking to try a little bit of Vietnam in Korea, I’d recommend Pho Mein for its excellent service, lovely surroundings, and competently made food.IMG_0450

Someone’s Using Their Noodle

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Hello and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I am going to be talking about a restaurant that my Korean coteacher had been raving about for weeks to me that I should try since it had the best Pad Thai and noodle dishes in the world.  The place in question is called Noodle Box.  It’s a chain that can be found in Incheon and Seoul, but I went to the location in Itaewon since I couldn’t find the one in Bupyeong in Seoul.  Here is their website:  http://www.noodlebox.co.kr/noodlebox/.

So I found the one in Itaewon quite easily after walking straight out of exit three.  I was confronted with a sleek and minimalist exterior.IMG_1724  On the inside, it had the same theme with hard wood floors, stainless steel lunch counters, and slate walls.  For some reason it reminded me of a fancier version of Chipotle.  Anyway, I was looking at their menu, and I saw the famous Pad Thai that my coteacher had been yammering for ages about.  Then again, I want to try something that might be a hidden gem on the menu, so I got the Thai chili noodles (6,300 W).  My thirst for adventure was rectified by the end of the meal.IMG_0243 After giving my order to the cashier, I helped myself to some free, cold water which I definitely appreciated on a humid day like yesterday.  After about 5-7 minutes, I received my meal in a moderate sized box that ended up being jam-packed with flavor.IMG_0244

When I first opened it up, I was greeted with a thick layer of bean sprouts.

Sprouts on sprouts on sprouts

Sprouts on sprouts on sprouts

They were fresh and crispy, but I soon dove further beneath this superficial layer of cellulose to find the spicy noodles.  There were plenty of flat, stir-fried rice noodles that were bathing in a devilishly red chili sauce.

Cultural Note:  Even though it's a great pic, sticking chopsticks in food like this is considered impolite.

Cultural Note: Even though it’s a great pic, sticking chopsticks in food like this is considered impolite.

 I knew what I was getting into with the three peppers on the menu, and I was pleasantly surprised at the spice level.  I would liken it to a very mild habanero like bite.  The sauce itself was not overly sweet, and the individual ingredients that were lurking amongst the noodles intrigued me.  Just when I thought it was just bean sprouts and noodles, a couple of mushrooms would poke their chewy caps out of the carb laden forest, or some thin but large pieces of sauteed pork would saunter out to be enjoyed .  The pork was juicy and tender, and there were even mussels in the mix sans their signature black shells.  By the time I reached the bottom of the box, I was quite full and satisfied with my blazing noodles.

Remnants of a delicious meal

Remnants of a delicious meal

So if you’re looking for a quality restaurant that serves more than just japchae and naengmyeon, head on down to Noodle Box to get a little more flavor to savor.

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