One, Two, Three, Pho 55

Pho 55

In previous posts, I have mentioned how Hyde Park has been undergoing changes. And these are welcomed changes. I have gone to a few of the new establishments on 53rd Street. However, there are a few pockets in Hyde Park that bear surprises. Pho 55 at 1611 E. 55th Street is one of those surprises. What was once a Middle Eastern restaurant for years is now a Vietnamese restaurant with some delicious menu items for those who are open to sampling dishes from Vietnam.

Lemongrass and Lime

Lemongrass and Lime

Coming in from humid temperatures, I was in the mood for something refreshing. I asked for a recommendation from the server and she told me that the lemongrass and lime drink would be a good option. I accepted the recommendation. I was glad that I accepted the recommendation. It was akin to a marriage of lemonade, limeade, and a hint of club soda.

Deep Fried Wonton Sheet

Deep Fried Wonton Sheet

For a starter, I had deep-fried wonton sheets. The thin, minced shrimp inside of the fried wontons were not substantial, but the flavour overcompensated. Served with a sweet and sour sauce and atop a green salad, I could have devoured an entrée sized platter of these fried wontons.

Grilled Chicken in Green Curry

Grilled Chicken in Green Curry

Having left a graduation ceremony, I had a white shirt on with my suit. Because of that, I did not have a soup for fear that the broth would splash about my shirt. Instead, I ordered grilled chicken in green curry with rice and a salad. I love spicy food and the green curry was spicy enough for a bite yet mild enough that I could enjoy the taste of the dish. Rice at Vietnamese restaurants alway has a perfect texture and the same was the case at Pho 55. As to the salad, I could have cut up the chicken, put it all in a bowl and had a wonderful time working my chopsticks on the dish. I was glad I ordered the curry dish than a pho. I did get one speck of curry on my shirt, though.

Fried Banana with Vanilla Cream

Fried Banana with Vanilla Cream

Being conscious again of my sugar intake, I had fried banana with vanilla cream sauce. The natural sweetness of the bananas in the fried wontons was better than any sugary dessert that I could have ordered. The vanilla cream sauce was only an accent, more like melted vanilla ice cream of the homemade variety.

Pho 55 does not have that hustling and bustling feeling that one experiences at Vietnamese restaurants in Chicago’s Little Vietnam along Argyle Avenue. There is a slight upscale atmosphere per the interior decor, but without upscale attitude. The service is fantastic. When you let a server make recommendations and he or she doesn’t act put upon, you have a winner in customer service. With outstanding food from the kitchen, it’s all about one pho the money, two pho the show, three to get ready, and pho to go. Yes, I know that sounds corny, but I couldn’t help it.

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Ben’s Noodles and Rice, And I Don’t Mean Uncle Ben’s

Ben's Noodles & Rice

Thai Iced Tea

Thai Iced Tea

December has arrived. As much as December is a festive month, it is also the time that I spend wondering what happened to the other eleven months in the year. In addition to that, there are several holiday parties that I have attended so far, each where I nursed one to two glasses of a nice scotch while I watched others relive their college days of drinking and not being aware that someone had a cellphone out recording their antics. But this December has been one where I have spent a lot of time in front of the mirror looking at my flat tummy thanks to a few months of CrossFit. (Insert bear growl.)

After a Saturday morning of doing some “dreamed up” CrossFit exercises, I had an appetite unlike I have had since I started CrossFit training in September. I finished off some pancake mix that a friend had given me along with a plate of eggs scrambled with sautéed onions and cilantro. I washed it all down with three glasses of protein shakes and my belly was still growling. There was waffling between going for Indian food or Italian for lunch. I settled on Indian as opposed to Italian and while on my way to my favourite Indian cafe, I walked by a Thai restaurant that looked to have a cozy cafe feel to it. Well, having never been there, I stopped in. Ben’s Noodles and Rice at 1139 W. Bryn Mawn Avenue was my destination.

Basil Rolls with Spicy Plum Sauce

Basil Rolls with Spicy Plum Sauce

I was not in a mood for pondering what I wanted. Truth be told, I glanced at the menu for some appetizer that I hadn’t had before. The basil rolls with spicy plum sauce caught my eye. It was meant to be because the fine, ground beef wrapped in basil leaves, wrapped more in finger-length pastries, and then deep-fried was a highlight.  A bigger highlight was the Thai iced tea, which wasn’t merely red tea with milk in it. This tea had a smoky flavour to it that heightened my addiction for the beverage. It may not be to the liking of everyone’s palate, but I was satisfied with its balance to the basil rolls.

Tom Yum Goong

Tom Yum Goong

The temperatures in Chicago had been quite nippy, and being only a few blocks from the lake doesn’t make matters better, I wanted something spicy. I ordered tom yum goong and requested it to be Thai spicy. Warning: If you are not accustomed to eating spicy food, do not order your dishes Thai spicy. Instead, order them mild. I loved the peppery bite in each sip and final slurp of the tom yum goong. Plump shrimp, fresh mushrooms, cilantro, chives, and flavourful broth made for a perfect recipe in a bowl to make the wintry chill not so bad.

Panang Curry Chicken

Panang Curry Chicken

Fried Banana

Fried Banana

To thoroughly sate my appetite, I ordered panang curry chicken. It has been rather hard for me to deviate from Thai curries, being a culinary zombie for any curries. The panang curry was of a thin consistency, but packed with green peas, bell peppers, chicken, and a wow factor. Having had green curry, red curry, yellow curry, panang, and mussaman at countless Thai restaurants, I highly recommend to anyone that they opt for curries when they order. Definitely order the panang curry at Ben’s Noodles & Rice. And for my finale, I had the fried banana and a cup of green tea. Bananas dipped in coconut milk, deep-fried, and dusted with confectioners sugar are the best. They’re golden. They’re delicious. They make me smile. They are the best, indeed.

Ben’s Noodles & Rice is definitely one to go to for an authentic Thai dining experience. There was a constant flow of individuals coming in to enjoy a meal at the restaurant and a steady stream of customers coming in to order something for to-go. Noticing a lot of customers and the restaurant staff greeting each other by name and very familiarly, it was evident that Ben’s Noodles & Rice is common grounds for those who appreciate not only the outstanding food, but the top service. When I think back on the possibility of me having had Indian or Italian food for lunch this particular day, I am glad that I settled on Thai. Yes, I will be one of those customers who return to Ben’s Noodles & Rice so often that they will probably make recommendations for me in advance of me reaching for a menu.

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Pasteurized Foodist

More and more I am discovering a lot of restaurants in Chicago that have a bit of an experimental edge to them. It seems that these restaurants are popping up as a result of chefs who are of a certain ethnicity studying culinary arts in countries far away from their native lands. One such restaurant that comes to mind is Sushi Samba Rio. There is a blend of Brazilian and Japanese in the food, but I have a feeling a chef who grew up in São Paulo or who had been there is responsible for that creation. There is a very large Japanese population in São Paulo. Another restaurant with a blend of two very different cultures is Vermilion, which marries Latin and Indian flavours. A third restaurant to add to the list is Pasteur, at 5525 N. Broadway Street in Chicago’s Edgewater neighbourhood.

Pasteur

Pasteur is a Vietnamese restaurant that has a French influence in the recipes. While wandering around in Edgewater, my stomach was doing the usual growling. As it turns out, I was passing by a building that had a façade blending chi-chi and European. In the window – lo and behold – was a menu. That meant that there was food and I was standing in front of a restaurant. Imagine that. After a brief perusal of the bill of fare, I entered an amazing room that definitely had a rustic European feel to it. Having arrived shortly after the doors had opened for business, I had the pick of seats in the empty great room. I told the server that I was pescatarian, didn’t have any food allergies but HATE NUTS, requested two appetizers, a soup, and an entrée, and told him to surprise me. I pulled my camera from my camera bag, took my white balance, and exhaled as I waited. This is my routine. In addition to my little personal preamble, a group of four came in and sat at the table IMMEDIATELY NEXT TO ME. This whole “sit next to Gino when the restaurant is EMPTY” thing is starting to get tiring. Nevertheless, I injected myself into their conversation. (Sigh) They didn’t mind, but rather enjoyed it.

Spring Roll

Spring Roll

I started with a spring roll. This was not just your ordinary spring roll, but one with sugar cane for the main ingredient. When I was a kid, sugar cane was a delicacy that I enjoyed throughout the summer much the way kids nowadays gobble dangerous snacks of chips, cookies, and pop to excess. The spring roll was made with a ground shrimp paste wrapped around the sugar cane and then grilled. It was served with a plum sauce that I was glad did not come across as competitive with the spring roll. You would be surprised at how some chefs can make the accompaniments more appealing to the palate than the main dish. Where I frowned was with the sprinkles of peanuts on the dish. The good thing is that they made the dish photograph well. However, I shook them off without complaint and commenced to gnashing away on the spring rolls.

Egg Rolls

Egg Rolls

My second course was a plate of egg rolls that I had to eat in the traditional manner. The egg rolls were mixed salmon and dill within the rolled, crispy pastry. They came with lettuce, cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrots, and pickled radish. To eat the egg rolls, I had to roll them in the lettuce with the other vegetables and dip them in a fish sauce before having them suffer the chomp of my beautiful white teeth. I have dined at countless Vietnamese restaurants in Chicago’s Little Vietnam and this is certainly the way you eat some of the appetizers. As high-end as Pasteur projects itself, there is perhaps a clause in their mantra that says they WILL retain authenticity.

Coconut Soup

Coconut Soup

The third course was a curry shrimp soup. I know that this was not a traditional pho. And when I had asked the server if it was Thai, he assured me that it was Vietnamese. I guess there are similarities, but I won’t overgeneralise and say that the flavours of Thailand and Vietnam are synonymous. The soup reminded me of tom ka gai. I had shrimp in this curry soup rather than chicken and I was quite okay with that. When the server had inquired as to whether I was okay with my dishes being spicy, I had replied in the affirmative, so the soup had a bite to it that made the autumn nip outside bearable. By now, the party of four that had sat next to me had begun to eye me with suspicion. Not only was I snapping photos from every possible angle of everything that had arrived at my table, but I was eating all of it without a struggle.

Calamari in Pineapple

Calamari in Pineapple

The fourth course was calamari and vegetables in a carved pineapple. The calamari had been dipped in flour and cooked in a wok with a calamari soy vinaigrette along with mixed vegetables of red and green bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, and fresh lemon juice. The insides of the carved pineapple had been cut into chunks. There was a natural sweetness to the whole dish. When it had come to the table, I could hear my neighbours making remarks as quietly as they could. That looks so delicious. I couldn’t eat it because it looks like art that should be behind a red velvet rope. He didn’t eat all of that other food. I can’t stop looking. That’s a man who enjoys food. I assured them that I did indeed devour the previous courses, albeit slowly, thanks to the aid of hot ginger tea. Plus, this was nearing the two hour mark, so I had everything spaced out to allow my stomach to settle in between. That is what degustations are all about. And the pineapple with calamari and vegetables met a slow end along with the cup of rice that had accompanied the dish.

Fried Banana, Green Tea Ice Cream

Fried Banana, Green Tea Ice Cream

The fifth course was a plate of fried bananas drizzled with chocolate syrup and strawberry syrup and served with a scoop of green tea ice cream. I have had this particular dessert at numerous Thai restaurants and while I cannot say that it is specific to Thai cuisine, I will acknowledge that it may be influenced by the palates of Asia. The bananas were sweet without the addition of sugar. The texture from having been fried was not such that you’d think the chef was thinking about frying chicken. It was crispy without being crusty. I loved the green tea ice cream, so rich, so creamy, so screaming “This was made with loose leaf green tea.” It may have been bought from a local Asian grocer and I don’t care. It was good. DO YOU HEAR ME?

Ginger Tea

Ginger Tea

Because I was in a mood for food roulette, I may not have gotten anything with a true French influence. Then again, it may be that the chef is French and he or she has a great love for the flavours of Vietnam. Instead of applying a fusion, the French aspect may be faint so that there are no competing ingredients in the recipes. My appetite didn’t complain. For the ambience, those who go ga-ga for aesthetics would love Pasteur. The price was so much less than what I had anticipated. The service was outstanding and I say this after my server had hit the right mark with every dish that came to my table. Remember, I simply gave my interests and let him come up with the courses. By the time I was ready to stumble out into the chilly temperatures of the autumn weather, the restaurant had filled with several patrons who were making their growling bellies shut up. And before the party that sat next to me left, I took a picture of them. I used their camera, of course.

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Thai Language and Food Course

Coconut Shrimp

Coconut Shrimp

Today was one of those days when all I wanted was to be outside and away from the condo. The previous week was blocked with the beginning stages of the renovation on my hallway bathroom. After five years of living in the condo, it is time for me to grow up. Although the complete renovation of my condo unit will be over the period of a few years, it is necessary. And as my neighbourhood is starting to feel the introduction of gentrification, property value will increase and it will be a good idea for me to upgrade my condo accordingly. But back to my original thought, I needed to escape so that cabin fever did not have me inside having a panic attack.

I had covered a lot of ground in terms of restaurants that I had wanted to post and there are still some that I am holding off for later dates — special dates that have meaning and significance. A lot of time had passed since I was last in Hyde Park — or rather New Hyde Park now after seeing so much change — so I made that my destination. Thankful for good parking karma, I secured a spot not far from my favourite Thai restaurant in Hyde Park. Thai 55 at 1607 55th Street was my stopping ground for putting my feet under the table for some aroy Thai. Now, I know that I have Thai restaurants galore on Chicago Alphabet Soup, but that is one cuisine I doubt I will ever tire of eating. Besides, it was Thai food that became my main staple when I was bringing my high cholesterol down — successfully — without medication. But for today, I was also going to see my great pheụ̄̀xn — friend — Wongchana for our usual discussion about politics, faulty religion, community awareness, and social consciousness. At the same time, I got to rehearse my Thai.

Basil Chicken

Basil Chicken

First, to get the tummy ready, I ordered ginger tea. This was not tea in the bag, no. This was a pot of chopped ginger root that I let steep in boiling water for at least five minutes. The kick of the ginger was all I needed to know that I was preparing my stomach for a good lunch. For an appetizer, I had coconut shrimp with a spicy plum sauce. Any time I have had shrimp that looked as plump as what I had, it turned out to be a morsel of shrimp hidden inside of a ridiculously thick façade of crust. That was not the case here. Then came the basil chicken. My common Thai entrée preference has always been a curry dish, be it gang dang gai, panang goong, or gang gari gai. Clearly I was in a different mode today, although sticking with a spicy dish. Thai chillies, red and green peppers, shredded cabbage, and ground chicken simmering in a slightly sweet — not saccharine — brown gravy made my lunch moment worthy of this blog posting. Served with jasmine rice, I was quite satisfied for settling for this option.

While my friend and I sat and talked, and oh can we talk, out came a dessert of fried banana with a light caramel glaze. They had read my mind. You know that you have established more than just a customer-client relationship with a restaurant, but you have formed a family bond instead when the wait staff knows a certain dish or dessert to bring to you. Mind you, my two favourite Thai desserts are sticky rice with mango and Thai custard. Nevertheless, I polished off the fried banana and ginger tea while giving my conspiracy theory about the Benghazi disaster and how I think that private contract firms have no business involved in managing national security interests.

Fried Banana

Fried Banana

Thai 55 may be one of my all-time favourite Thai restaurants in Chicago for sentimental reasons. As I had mentioned, this was where I started learning to speak Thai. I thank my great friend Wongchana for that. Imagine an African-Caribbean man such as me speaking something more exotic and fascinating than my own mother tongues. Because of the close relationship I have with all who work at Thai 55, it is unfair for me mention how great the service is. To me, it is simply outstanding by default. The quality of food is the next big item I seek in restaurants and I have never had a dish at Thai 55 that I found displeasing to my palate. It sounds rather fantastic saying that especially after close to, if not more than, ten years of being a regular patron of thier cuisine. But don’t just take my word for it. Go and discover for yourself that all is good and aroy at Thai 55.

Pee Chaai

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