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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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!