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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

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The Heart and Seoul of Chicago

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안녕하세요! or Hello! to everyone out there on the interwebz!  Welcome to another wonderful edition of Mastication Monologues where I bring you the best, most delicious, and/or intriguing eats I find as I walk down this path called life.  Today’s edition relates to the greeting in the funny looking writing at the beginning of the post.  If you’re not familiar with Asian scripts, I wrote in the Korean writing system known as Hangul.  It’s a relatively new writing system compared to the Roman alphabet or Arabic, but it is ingenious in its design compliments of King Sejong who invented said alphabet back in 1443.  Each symbol relates to how the different components of the human mouth are positioned to make each sound.  If I had to choose a sound to accurately describe how I felt after eating at Korean fusion BBQ joint Del Seoul in Chicago, I’d probably say ㅁㅁㅁㅁㅁㅁㅁㅁ(mmmmmmmmm).  

I met up with my friend, Heidi, yesterday since we recently came back from a year in Korea together.  While we were both happy to be back in the good old USA, it felt only fitting that we caught up on things over the food that we tried throughout our adventures in the Land of the Morning Calm.  I was a bit surprised to find it in the neighborhood by DePaul and not in Koreatown, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying my dining experience from beginning to end.IMG_3090  Upon walking in, I was surprised to find the place was kind of like a Far East Asian Chipotle where you have to order your food and then sit down at a table with a number.IMG_3097  Looking over the menu, I could see that it wasn’t quite the Korean cornucopia I was expecting.  While they did have some classics I’ve enjoyed like 비빔밥 (bibimbap; mixed vegetables and rice bowl), 김치볶음밥 (kimchibokkeumbap; fried rice with kimchi), and the ubiquitous 김치 (kimchi; pickled cabbage), they were missing other common dishes like 떡볶이 (tteokbokki; rice cakes in spicy sauce) and 잡채 (chapchae; translucent fried noodles).  Instead, they were replaced with Korean fusion treats like tacos, banh mi, and kimchi poutine.  I wanted to try a bit of everything, so I got the following:  a 갈비 (galbi; bbq beef ribs) taco ($2.95), a spicy bbq pork banh mi ($6.25), and a small cup of kimchi ($1.50) since I love my pickled vegetables.  

As we sat down, I had trouble finding an open table since the place was hopping with patrons greedily devouring their dishes.  The owners also provide complimentary soy sauce and spicy Sriracha sauce to jazz up your selections which wouldn’t normally happen in Korea.  Our tacos came out first, and they were a lot smaller than I was anticipating. IMG_3092I would liken it to the side of a large English muffin, but what it lacked in size it made up with bold flavors.  Not only was the beef expertly grilled and seasoned, but the cilantro-onion relish combined with the secret slaw brought in a slightly herbal yet semi-spicy punch to this south of the DMZ border fusion dish.  I would definitely recommend getting the tacos.  Next came the Vietnamese banh mi sandwich with Korean ingredients. IMG_3095 I loved the jalapeno pepper slices and the juicy pork pieces that were simmered in a Korean gochujang (hot pepper sauce) marinade.  What I didn’t love were the pickled daikon radish strands and the extremely fresh bread used to bring all of the great ingredients together.  The radish took a lot away from the other elements with its overpowering pickled flavor which I didn’t appreciate.  As for the bread, you might think I’m crazy for ragging on the crunchy yet chewy loaves used to make scrumptious banh mi, but in this case, I felt it was too much bread for too little ingredients.IMG_3096  While I do love carbo loading when I’m not going to run a marathon, I felt this was a case of going buck wild with the baguette to the loss of the other ingredients.  I tried a bit of Heidi’s 불고기 (bulgogi; bbq beef) sandwich, and it was the same deal.  Too much dough stopping the other ingredients’ flow.  These sandwiches weren’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination and a better value for the price compared to the tacos, but the tacos were more finger-licking good.  Then there was the kimchi.  Kimchi flows through the blood of every Korean, and it is the be all end all of foods for them…and me and my friend, Meropi.  There is even a special time of the year where Koreans gather as a family to prepare the kimchi for fermentation for the winter.  That’s how highly Korean regard this fiber-tastic but not vegetarian friendly delicacy.  While there are many different types of kimchi, the most popular is the spicy kimchi that consists of pickled cabbage and chili sauce.  I shocked my Korean coteachers every lunchtime with how much of the fermented vegetables I’d pile on my food tray, but it made up for a lot of the other options that had tentacles sticking out of it.  After so many days of eating the cabbage, I really came to love it, so I wanted to see if Del Seoul’s could match up to the motherland’s special blend of spices.  From the first delicious chopstickful, I was taken back to the land where I was complimented on my chopstick skills and scolded for mixing other foodstuffs with my bland white rice.

Kimchi just chillin in the corner

Kimchi just chillin in the corner

  Long story short, it was the real deal, and I’m sure that I will always remember my adventures in the East when I savor this much maligned food in the West.

Overall, I’d recommend Del Seoul to anyone who’s a little wary of jumping tastebuds-first into Korean cuisine or those who want to experience certain Korean classics reinvented through fusion food.  The prices aren’t overwhelming, and the environment is simple and welcoming.

Del Seoul 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.

It’s a Good Day to Fry Hard

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Hello to everyone out there to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  This is part one of two for my Easter weekend in Incheon/Seoul.  This past week has been way too crazy for its own good at school with losing one of my coteachers to sickness, so I was intent on making the most of this weekend to put my worries behind me.

So after a semi-wild night on Friday in Bupyeong, I was planning on meeting up with some friends at this barbecue festival in Seoul, but due to some detours they took, somehow they were over an hour late.  I got tired of waiting in the cold and semi-drizzling outdoors, so I went downstairs at Magpie Brewery to get my southern style barbecue to find a line that was all the way out the door and not moving.  I waited for probably ten minutes and called it quits.

Never meant to be

Never meant to be

I’ve had my fair share of barbecue, and I’m pretty sure this wasn’t going to be like the real thing I’ve had while in the Dirty South.  Instead, I made my down to a restaurant right around the corner that I saw on the walk over to the brewery:  The Poutine Factory.  Now, I remember during my childhood we took a trip to New York/Canada, and we stopped in Canada at a McDonalds for a bathroom break.  Naturally, I wanted to see if they had anything different on the menu, and I saw that they had something that looked like fries piled high with cheese curds and gravy with the word “Poutine” next to it.  I didn’t really know what it was back then, but that image always stuck with me.  So this place, Poutine Factory, seemed to be a perfect place to finally try that mysterious Canadian food I saw many years ago.

By Noksapyeong station

By Noksapyeong station

It wasn’t the cheapest meal I’ve had here, 12,000 won, but I went with the KB fries with a side of chili sauce.  The decor of the place was not too kitschy with little Canadian souvenirs everywhere along with different books in a little bookshelf with different facts about Canada.  I saw the guy also freshly frying the fries in the back, so I was expecting a great meal. They were all finished, and I was salivating just looking at the Poutine from afar.  Then the chef tripped and spilled it on the floor…luckily I got a discount because of it.  He whipped up a brand new order, and I was face to face with my Korean Poutine.

Bon soir, mon ami

Bon soir, mon ami

It was a mini mountain of freshly fried fries topped with kimchi, marinated bulgogi, chili sauce, sesame seeds, and sour cream.  Plus, I had a side of sweet chili sauce and a bottle of Sriracha just to keep things interesting (as if they weren’t already).  To start, the fries were perfect with a golden-brown hue and a fluffy white interior.  Plus, they were not greasy or over salted.  The bulgogi was really good with the gochujang chili sauce and sesame seeds.  There was a good amount piled on the fries, and the meat was very tender.  The only downside to this dish was the kimchi.  Now, I’m not a kimchi expert/Korean, but this kimchi was very bland even though it had been mixed in with the gochujang.  I thought that the sour cream drizzle brought more to the table as a cooling element to the savory/spicy elements of the meal than the limp contribution of the fermented cabbage.

Overall, Poutine Factory is a bit pricier than a normal Korean restaurant, but you get a substantial portion of very hearty food.  It was a tasty tribute to the spirit of the Quebecois.   Bon Appetit!

I Got Tanked in Uptown

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Welcome to another chapter in the food saga that is Mastication Monologues!  Today I will be talking about a restaurant that is a bit off the beaten path but is well-known to those who enjoy a traditional Vietnamese treat.  The establishment in question is called Pho Xe Tang or its English name “Tank Noodles” in Uptown right off the Argyle El stop at 4953 N Broadway Chicago, IL 60640.  This place is an institution within the area known as little Saigon, and I can definitely see why after trying their signature dish: Phở.

H.Q. for amazing Vietnamese food

Now some people who are reading this blog right now are scratching their heads trying to make heads or tails of the word I just wrote above, and no, I did not create a new letter in the English alphabet.  For my own typing sanity, I’ll write it in English, Pho, instead of its Vietnamese counterpart above.  Plus, I would like to note that this dish is pronounced “Fuh” not “Foh” with a long “o”.  I made the same mistake when I first saw it, but I was quickly corrected by my friend who had visited Tank Noodle before.  Pronunciation aside, what exactly is Pho?

Pho is a broth dish that could be considered a veritable melting pot of indigenous Vietnamese, French, and Chinese influences to create one great meal.  The soup begins with a simple beef or chicken broth that contains various types of meat depending on your preferences.  Then there are garnishes that the diner can add to the soup as they go along such as cilantro, onion, lime, bean sprouts, Sriracha sauce, Asian basil, and bean sprouts.  Many chefs recommend adding the ingredients gradually to the soup to enhance the flavor profile, but I personally think that it really doesn’t make much of a difference since the ingredients are all so fresh and tasty to begin with.

When I went to Tank Noodle, I got the beef Pho (phở bò) with tripe added to the mixture just to be adventurous.  If you aren’t a fan of tripe, you can be even crazier at Tank Noodle and try their Pho with tendons, ox tail, or even bull penis (yes, you read that right).  The actual broth was a light tan color but still possessed a deeply beefy soul that did not drown out the cilantro, bean sprouts, and basil that I put in the mixture.

It’s like a beefy pool party and everyone’s invited!

I also added a healthy dosage of Sriracha sauce since I love my food to be extra spicy.  The the beef slices in the soup were cut almost razor-thin which led them to almost dissolve on my tongue like a package of deliciously beefy Listerine breath strips.  As for the tripe, it was tougher than the beef, naturally, but soaked up the Sriracha like some sort of meaty sponge which made it more palatable.  The rice based noodles were firm and resilient which showed their high quality and were in harmony with the other competing flavors in this Southeast Asian symphony.  By the end of the bowl, I was completely stuffed with beef, broth, and a spicy feeling in my mouth that reminded me of what a delicious meal I just consumed.

Even though I thought my meal was completely over, I had to indulge in one of my favorite Asian drinks:  boba tea.  If you’ve never had this drink, it can either be like a tea based fruit flavored slushie or more like a milk-tea hybrid.  Its signature flourish is the option to drink it with or without “bubbles” or “pearls”.  These two different names for the same thing are referring to the small balls of tapioca that reside on the bottom of the cup like little gummi nuggets of gold waiting to be discovered.  I personally love the little buggers, but other people aren’t fans due to their chewy/rubbery texture.  To each, his/her own, I guess.  Anyway,  I went with one of my favorite flavor mixtures which is mango and strawberry with bubbles.   The tea was not too syrupy, and they gave me a generous helping of the tapioca pearls which elated me greatly.  Once I finished this drink, I knew that I experienced a great meal even though it felt like the Tet Offensive was being reenacted in my stomach as I was too full and the spicy Sriracha was clashing with the sweetness of the tea.

A chalice of deliciousness

So if you’re looking for a new type of cuisine that goes beyond the typical American Chinese orange chicken or the usual Japanese sushi rolls, try going a bit further south into Indochina to sample a tasty traditional treat from Vietnam at Tank Noodle!

Tank Noodle (Pho Xe Tang ) on Urbanspoon

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