Las Vegas Vietnamese, Winning Gamble

Las Vegas Vietnamese Restaurant

While doing some freelance photography in the West Suburbs of Chicago, my restaurant adviser had sent a text message to me requesting that I meet her at a Vietnamese restaurant in Berwyn before continuing on home. With non-stop traffic congestion coupled with never-ending construction, a nice stop after being in third gear for a little over an hour was a welcomed recommendation.

Durian Smoothie

Durian Smoothie

Las Vegas Vietnamese Restaurant at 6723 Cermak Road has been in business since August, 2017, serving authentic Vietnamese flavors. It’s a spacious restaurant with a nice amount of light and without seating that introduces a feeling of being crowded. Add to that service that makes it feel like you are going to someone’s home instead of to an establishment, you have the making of a fantastic restaurant.

Without going overboard with all of the appetizing items on the menu, we started with durian smoothies while waiting for our dishes to come to the table. For those who have had durian, you are already aware of how much of a contradiction that fruit is. For those who have never had it, just get a durian smoothie in the meantime. The actual fruit smells like it would attract all sorts of creatures from the land and sky, but has a sweet taste that makes you wonder how something could smell so horrible yet taste so heavenly. Nevertheless, the smoothies were refreshing and sweet without being saccharine.

Còm Bò Tòm Nuòng

Còm Bò Tòm Nuòng

Easing into the meal, to whet the palates, we had spring rolls that came with a side of peanut sauce that had crushed peanuts. Even as a common staple, there was a freshness in each bite. They certainly did not have the “day old” texture that has become rather commonplace at a lot of Pan Asian restaurants that sell spring rolls.

Spring Rolls

Spring Rolls

The main dishes were where Las Vegas Vietnamese shines. There was a plate of grilled beef, shrimp, and rice, all served with a thin savory sauce that added a note of sweet and savory. This com bò tòm nuòng was seasoned well, and tender to each bite, this version of a surf and turf packed so much flavor that one may want larger portions of the dish. For our second landing, we indulged a large bowl of grilled beef called còm bò nuòng. Served with bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, and a small cup of the thin sweet and savory sauce, this will probably become a go-to dish on future visits. Adding the complimentary mint leaves and jalapeños to the dish made it pop that much more.

Còm Bò Nuòng

Còm Bò Nuòng

Rounding out the dishes, we had phò gà. While ramen may be a rather popular fad nationwide, phò is quite divine when prepared culturally versus appropriated. Brimming with a very faint aroma of autumn — cinnamon or cloves — the noodles were neither al dente nor mushy. The chicken was not simply dumped into the broth, which goes to why individual bites of the chicken burst with a notion of having been seasoned well. And being too filled from having enjoyed so much already, we opted for iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk. Brand name coffee shops would lose business if citizens at large were to get properly introduced to Vietnamese iced coffee.

Phò Gà

Phò Gà

Most who are in Chicago will recall that Broadway and Argyle in Uptown is where there is a cluster of authentic Vietnamese restaurants. It is nice finding a Vietnamese restaurant in the suburbs, as it provides an alternative to fast food eateries and family style restaurants that have cookie cutter menu options. Las Vegas Vietnamese was a gamble for this first visit, not really knowing what to expect. It was great discovering something with cultural appeal, top table service, and reasonable prices. If you want to take a chance on appetizing Vietnamese food while in or passing through the Near West Suburbs, make Las Vegas Vietnamese your stop.

Interior

Interior

Las Vegas Vietnamese Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Saigon Bistro, The Blog Post from Heaven

One of the great things about social media is that you interact with a lot of people whom you would probably never cross paths with. Since I have been posting photos to Instagram, I have gained quite a few followers and many who I follow in return. Recently I started seeing photos of crawfish piled high with corn on the cob. One of the main Instagram posters is Saigon Bistro and when I say that the photos had this hypnotic effect that kept begging me to go to the restaurant, I caved in. Off to 6242 N. California Avenue in West Ridge I went.

Saigon Bistro

My belly was empty, so I had a ravenous appetite. And because I met with a friend, there were no qualms about ordering plenty of food. We started with an appetizer combo platter. The coconut butterfly shrimp were huge, plump, juicy, and burst with each bite. The coco chicken was the same. There were miniature bacon wrapped scallops and miniature egg rolls. What was the absolute best on the platter were the crab rangoons. There was real crab in the rangoons. It was evident in the flavour. These rangoons were not merely oozing with cream cheese but attacking the taste buds with the outstanding taste of actual crab. This was a first that I’ve had at any restaurant in America.

Appetizer Combo

Appetizer Combo

The first big plate of food was king crab. We called this an item from their underground menu because it was not on the main menu. But because we asked kindly if they had any, the chef accommodated our request. And we showed our appreciation by working the cracker on the shells, plucking out tender morsels of crab, and devouring it. Topped with peppers and seasoned with only salt and pepper, I may be going out on a limb when I say this, but of all the seafood restaurants I’ve been to in Chicago, these were the best crab legs I have had.

King Crab

King Crab

Now, having seen so many photos of crawfish and lobster on Instagram, I showed the server a photo of a dish of crawfish and told her, “That’s what we want.” There was no looking at the menu, trying to decide what else, or indecisiveness. We ordered two pounds of crawfish spicy that came with corn on the cob and andouille sausage. Last time I had crawfish this appetizing was when I was in New Orleans. The chefs and cooks in New Orleans have competition from the Vietnamese chef at Saigon Bistro. Those who love shellfish will immediately become addicts for the crawfish with corn.

Crawfish Boil

Crawfish Boil

Given we had worked ourselves into a snail’s pace, we sat for a while to let our stomachs settle and to fight sleep. After some time had passed, we ordered a platter of tamarind shrimp. The shrimp was incredibly fresh and fleshy like prawns. They popped as we sank our teeth in them. The tamarind sauce was a perfect complement to the shrimp without being overpowering or sweet. After two filling pieces of shrimp apiece, we got the rest for takeaway.

Tamarind Shrimp

Tamarind Shrimp

Saigon Bistro is tucked away on California Avenue between Peterson Avenue and Devon Street. Although it is not in an area with lots of foot traffic, its presence is known by many. Service is superb. One thing that was obvious was that the server was patient with explaining options and offering suggestions. For all of the food that we had, I was surprised that the price was not exorbitant. The freshness of the ingredients and especially the crawfish boil transporting me to New Orleans mentally, I am a fan, for true.

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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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Little Vietnam Restaurant, Big Taste

Little Vietnam Restaurant

Anyone who has been to the Bryn Mawr corridor between Broadway Avenue and Sheridan Road in Chicago will notice that the area is clearly vying for being the city’s cultural hub. Anyone who is a xenophile would fall in love with the multi ethnicities and the new cultural restaurants that are taking up occupancy. One of my favourite Indian eateries is just at the Red Line stop at Bryn Mawr and there is an outstanding Thai restaurant all about thirty paces away from the Indian restaurant. Recently I found that what was once a closed business has now opened its doors as a Vietnamese restaurant. It may be that the Argyle corridor is saturated and competition could be strong for Little Vietnam Restaurant, which is at 1132 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue, but it’s location on Bryn Mawr poises it to be one of the select go-to spots.

Iced Coffee

Iced Coffee

Egg Rolls

Egg Rolls

Spacious, light, and airy, Little Vietnam Restaurant looks like it could be small when looking at it from the outside. Once you get inside, you find a rather large room and some very accommodating service. There are a lot of traditional Vietnamese dishes on the menu. Those who are fans of phos, will not be disappointed. However, there is enough variety that you will not feel as if you have arrived at one of the Argyle dining establishments that seemingly have a formula well suited for the American palate, so as not to provoke a tarnishing write-up on social media.

I started with an iced coffee and crunchy egg rolls served with a sweet and tangy dipping sauce. For those who act bananas before their third cup of morning coffee, they should try the iced coffee at Little Vietnam Restaurant. And the baby egg rolls were outstanding. Deep fried pastries stuffed with pork, shrimp, carrots, taro, cabbage, and glass noodle had very little success staying on the plate. Although there were only three, they were filling.

Lemongrass Chicken

Lemongrass Chicken

Having had several bowls of pho over the past few weeks, I opted for something different. There was a menu listing for lemongrass chicken. I wanted a dish that was spicy, considering the temperatures in Chicago had been waffling between warm and chilly to the point of messing with my sinuses. Well, spicy food does a great job of correcting my sinus trouble and having a dish as tasty as lemongrass chicken was not a bad option. After the first few bites, I wondered where the spice was. And then a minute later, there was the feeling of heat rising from my scalp and the ring of fire around my lips. I can’t tell you how satisfied I was. Only a few restaurants can add burn to their recipes and still have flavour in the dishes. Little Vietnam Restaurant did it correctly with the lemongrass chicken.

After a few minutes of chatting with the server about the cameras I was using, she being engaging since she has been taking photography seriously, I let some time pass before indulging a dessert. There were two options. The was a yogurt that was served with watermelon and there was Vietnamese pudding. Still recognizing that it was chilly outside, I had the pudding instead. Now, Vietnamese pudding does not have the consistency of Jell-O pudding. It’s thin, full of miniature tapioca pearls and sweet potatoes. As to flavour, think lychee. My server was telling me about how her grandmother prepared the pudding, practically making a medley of things to taste. The pudding was well suited to my taste, for sure.

Vietnamese Pudding

Vietnamese Pudding

Little Vietnam Restaurant seems like a fantastic spot for mid afternoon. The Bryn Mawr corridor tends to be action packed and congested with lots of pedestrian traffic in the late afternoons, so the restaurant may have a constant ebb and tide of patrons. Those who have frequented the Vietnamese restaurants on Argyle, which is only two stops south on the Red Line, will find Little Vietnam Restaurant to be a pleasant surprise. The service was superb, something that is rare coming from those of the younger generation, but absolute top here. As to the prices, they are extremely reasonable, which could explain a lot of dine-in and carry-out orders I noticed during my dining experience. Little Vietnam is a welcome addition to Bryn Mawr. Those with appetites can attest to that.

Little Vietnam on Urbanspoon

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.

Pasteur on Urbanspoon Pasteur on Foodio54

If I Were Lost

Saigon Pho  CafeOne of the things about being a part of the international community is that I am indeed open to trying new and exciting things, especially when it comes to food. As of late, I have been going to restaurants and switching into a mode of what it would be like to be abroad, lost, and hungry. Although I have several languages in my multilingual box, there could be the chance that I wind up somewhere among people who can only acknowledge my presence, but who cannot communicate with me other than with a nod, a quizzical frown, a smile, and a response of “Sorry, but I don’t speak English.” In the meantime, I would have to eat and it would help to not be a haughty American who sneers at everything that does not get come in the form of French fries, hamburger, hot dog, steak, potatoes, or macaroni and cheese. American comfort food has taught me one thing: it will bloat your waistline more than it will get you help abroad if you are hungry.

Egg Rolls

Egg Rolls

I went to Forest Park, Illinois, to a stretch of eateries along Madison Street. On this particular day when I went, there were several different languages that I picked up and that is not something you find too common in the suburbs unless you are in the middle of a tourist setting where global visitors congregate. But in the midst of all the languages bandied about, outdoor cafes with patrons taking coffee, and quaint little side streets, there was a Vietnamese cafe that beckoned to me more. I obeyed and entered Saigon Pho & Cafe at 7237 Madison Street.

Mango Smoothie

Mango Smoothie

The inside is reminiscent of a polished hole in the wall. Far from the usual garish display that you may find at some Asian restaurants, it was quite homey. Being the only exotic in the restaurant, I was greeted with authenticity, not with distance. That was absolutely cool because the welcome made it a little easier to switch into the mode of imagining what it would be like to be in Hanoi somewhere off the beaten path and wanting something to eat rather than being guarded. I have been to several Vietnamese restaurants. However, I have never been to Vietnam and noting that the wait staff and a few who poked their heads out from the kitchen were all Vietnamese, I figured this would also give me the chance to try a few words in the language to give myself comfort. All of that went out the window when the waiter saw my camera and we launched into lengthy conversation about cameras, camera equipment, photography, and locations for getting great shots.

After the pleasantries had been exchanged and I had gotten out a few butchered words in Vietnamese, I placed my order. I ordered a mango smoothie without tapioca pearls. I love those pearls but even with the straw being wide, they tend to block the flow of the smoothie. Asian restaurants and cafes have a monopoly on smoothies and getting them correct. The mango smoothie at Saigon Pho & Cafe came in a fancy glass with a decorative stirrer, not in a plastic cup. And let me just say that the flavour exploded and had a little bit of pulp in it, which was all the hint I needed to know that some actual mangoes had been in a blender for the drink. And to go along with the smootie, I had egg rolls with a spicy plum sauce. Much like mini egg rolls that you have at Chinese and Thai restaurants, they were crunchy on the outside and filled with carrots, bean sprouts, and chopped shrimp.

Seafood Pho

Seafood Pho

With the weather having waffled a bit as of late, my sinuses had been having their merry way with me. Knowing that Vietnamese food can have a kick to it, I scanned the menu for one of the soups. If you do not remember anything about Vietnamese cuisine, they tend to shame anyone who attempts to make a good soup. The seafood pho that I had was a prime example. Loaded with vermicelli, shrimp, mussels, and fish balls, not only did the spices tell my nasal passages to behave but the taste was dazzling. But let me not forget one ingredient that I would otherwise assume the haughty American stance and thumb my nose in disdain. There were a few pieces of tripe in the soup. Ah, don’t bother looking it up on Google. Tripe is the inner lining of the stomach. We all know that chitterlings are a delicacy, and one that I would gladly endure being set on fire for rather than eating. However, tripe is one ingredient that I have partaken of in Nigerian pepper soup and in other Vietnamese soup without as much as a grimace. It may be that the texture is more akin to that of calamari rather than that of an uncooked dumpling. It may be that I have beheld the malodorous horror of chitterlings before they were boiled to their edible state and not experienced the same of tripe. It may also be that tripe, if cooked the right way, has more of a seasoned taste to it. Either way, I devoured all of the soup.

Vietnamese Crepe

Vietnamese Crepe

Wanting at least one other thing to journal for my experience at Saigon Pho & Cafe, I ordered a Vietnamese crepe with shrimp. Brought to the table on a large plate was a crepe stuffed with shrimp, bean sprouts, and spices. There was also a plate of lettuce, mint, carrots, cucumber, and a vinaigrette sauce. In the traditional manner of eating the dish, you take a little bit of the crepe, wrap it in lettuce with carrots and cucumber, dip it in the vinaigrette sauce, and then eat. There was only a little bit of the crepe that I could tackle before surrendering and requesting a box for the remainder of it. While I waited and cashed out, the waiter and I talked more about cameras, the wise choice of buying a camera body and investing in lenses, and recommendations of some Vietnamese restaurants in the city north of where I live.

For the few phrases of Vietnamese that I did get off my tongue, with a few corrections, English is quite a common language there. That’s fine, but when going to restaurants where there is someone in the kitchen or taking the order who knows as much English as I know Vietnamese, it would help to have a comfort requesting something for the palate. At Saigon Pho & Cafe, the price was much less that what one would expect. And with the wait staff being cool with my attempt at the language, I have a feeling that much like the way I learned Thai, I will polish my language talents in Vietnamese while indulging some pho on a regular basis. Hmm. No chance for me getting lost in Forest Park getting to the restaurant, for sure.

Saigon Pho & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Pan-Asian Sampling Delight

Simply Thalia

When weekends arrive in Chicago, I tend to smile a little wider. I can sleep later in the mornings. I get a reprieve from hand-holding fellow colleagues at work. And I can eat until my heart is content, my belly is filled, and I can take a nap without anyone running into my space and disrupting it. Saturday morning arrives, it is sunny outside, I am on my way to some eatery, and then there is this thing called cloud coverage — always followed by cloud bursts of torrential downpours — that messes up the merry work for any outdoor activity. This has been a weekend phenomenon almost wears me down to spiritual defeat. But my appetite remains in tact, though.

After work a few days ago, I went by a Pan-Asian eatery that is in the concourse between the Red Line at Lake Street and the Blue Line at Washington Street. In the lower level of the new mall at 108 N. State Street is Simply Thalia, which is simply an Asian cafe of all good things. When I had gone the other day, my appetite was way off the scale because I had recently increased my workout routine and I had a hankering that was driving me sideways the wall. Having gone to the restaurant several months past and had a panang dish, I was not necessarily thrilled with the diligence done to their Thai curry dishes — more watery than hearty — but I was hungry and there are other items on their bill of fare. Today I wanted to try a different approach and I had decided that I would keep with my Snacking on Saturday [convenient] tradition. I was only going to have appetizers and, by George, I was going to like it. That was me psyching myself up for the edibles.

Saigon Shrimp Rolls

Saigon Shrimp Rolls

There was very little convincing that I had to do. Focusing on the appetizers, which were priced very low, I eyed three items that I wanted to delight myself with. I started with Saigon shrimp rolls. Who would have thought that rice paper rolled with shrimp, cucumber, carrots, lettuce, cilantro, bean sprouts, rice noodles, and mint could be so blooming satisfying? The Vietnamese apparently figured it out and the shrimp rolls that I feasted myself on with the complementary dipping sauce, consisting of a plum sauce and a hint of teriyaki sauce, really made an impression on me. This was the first time I have had Saigon shrimp rolls and loved them. My hat goes off the chef, cook, or frozen food merchant who dealt me this treat.

The next appetizer I had was Burmese samosa. Flaky to perfection and stuffed with sweet curried potatoes and spiced chicken, my mouth burst with flavours of Burma. One ethnicity lacking in the Chicago multi-cultural restaurant spectrum is Burmese. Albeit a small items on the larger menu, I was reminded of the fine eating experiences in many Burmese restaurants in Toronto, Ontario, and in Washington, DC. Served with a sweet mustard accented with a hint of cilantro, I know now that it is time for me to visit old friends in Toronto and in DC — to catch up with my friends, of course — for some loving from the kitchen courtesy some Burmese.

Burmese Samosas

Burmese Samosas

The final appetizer was Malaysian roti canai. Malaysian home-made naan served up with curry chicken dipping sauce was an absolute taste of heaven. It is quite evident that Simply Thalia does not concoct thick curry gravies, a case with the thin base for the curry chicken sauce. However, this curry was only thin, not watery, and it worked very well with the roti. I could eat the Malaysian roti canai everyday for the rest of my life and never grow tired of it. Hmm. Wait. I have a threshold and everyday would be too much; I would not want to risk tiring myself of such a dish full of love. But I found the roti alone to be a welcome to the palate and the curry sauce made it that more appetizing.

I cannot place Simply Thalia in any one ethnic bucket as there are many Asian cultures represented in the food — Japanese, Chinese, Malaysian, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and Indian just to name a few. What I will add is that for there to be a plethora of Asian cultures present in the food at any one restaurant, there is a splendid job done keeping each ethnic dish specific to the culture which it represents, rather than introducing fusion and competing flavours.

Malaysian Roti Canai

Malaysian Roti Canai

For the three appetizers and some organic tea, the tab for my moment of food bliss was under $20. Small and rather close, Simply Thalia has a feel of a lounge — minus super tan blond Rachels in high heels and mini skirts and Oompa Loompa orange Barts in clothes way too tight. Granted servers do not perform acrobats to please your sensibilities, I was appreciative of the fact that when I had said I wanted each appetizer one at a time and spaced out between delivery, the individual who took my order honoured my request. So my three factors that keep me returning were there: great service, low price, and outstanding food. What am I going to do when I increase my workout routine again? That was a rhetorical question.

Also, Simply Thalia has a parent restaurant named Thalia Spice, which is at 833 W. Chicago Avenue. I am almost certain that the food is worthy of a visit. And even if you still want a sample of their tasty menu items, you can order online from your desktop or from your smart phone. I think I am outside of the delivery area, but I will go and have a seat at one of the tables and see what delight I can derive from some Pan-Asian sampling.

Simply Thalia on Urbanspoon

A Trip to Little Vietnam — Tien Giang

Tien Giang

Here is the scenario. It was raining. And my stomach was growling. It’s autumn and with the wind blowing off of Lake Michigan, chilly temperatures were a given. I am a man of easy appetite, so I guess that’s a given also. I’m also adventurous and that meant trying another restaurant that had many of my friends staring at me in complete bewilderment. My friend, another friend of ours who is a fan of good eating and drink, and I went out for some Vietnamese food in Chicago’s Uptown. Tucked sniffing distance from the Argyle Red Line stop on 1104-06 W. Argyle Street, we got out of the chilly, rainy air and decided to do something about our constant growling bellies.

Spring Rolls Vietnamese Egg Rolls

We didn’t waste any time figuring out what we wanted. We’re not fashion models concerned about meeting some agent’s demands for size control. [Well, I was once a fashion model, but now I’m a man of easy appetite. Oh, I said the latter already.] Anyway, we started with goi cuon. These spring rolls were filled with pork, shrimp, vegetables and vermicelli rolled in thin rice paper. Served up with a sweet sauce, it was tasty enough to make you want to start doing the happy dance. We also had cha gio, which were Vietnamese egg rolls. I will never eat another Chinese egg roll ever, not after savouring the goodies. Oh, wait, I had sworn off restaurant Chinese food after my first room-mate post-college had his parents over and they cooked dinner. You haven’t had good Chinese food until you’ve had some Chinese ma and pop in your kitchen doing it right. But I digress.

Seafood Pancake Pho

There was room on the table and we couldn’t have that. We ordered a banh xeo, a Vietnamese pancake with bean sprouts, pork, shrimp, and apparently a lot of love. That thing was on the table all of a good five minutes. All we left on the plate was the knife we used to divide it among ourselves. With the weather being dreary and wet outside, we also figured that a big bowl of soup would really go over well. Chicken noodle soup? No. Campbell’s tomato soup? No. Progresso? Hell no! Vegetable soup from a can? No, no, no! We had authentic Vietnamese danger soup, not for the faint of heart. This was a mild yet spicy soup that had a thin broth, thin rice noodles, meat balls, chicken, and — clutch your pearls — tripe. You can’t go to a Vietnamese restaurant and not partake of a delicacy true to the land. No way! The waitress had warned us that Americans are not a fan of the soup. Now that I think of it, that may be the reason why we ordered it, because we didn’t want something tempered for the American palate. I still won’t eat anyone’s chitterlings, but I will go back to this restaurant and have some more of the soup.

Having finished off the appetizers and soup, it was then time for the entrées. Because the portions are so huge, we ordered two large dishes of ca hong chien nuoc mam and ga xao sa ot. The ca hong chien nuoc mam was a fried red snapper that was so meaty that I wanted to catch a flight back to Jamaica for some red snapper, rice and peas, plantain, and ginger beer. Um, um, good! The ga xao sa ot was sliced chicken with garlic, lemon grass, and chilli, served over steamed white rice. Rarely have I had any lemon chicken prepared to such perfection as to have the meat fall apart when you stick a fork in it. Tien Giang did an outstanding job in its preparation of the chicken dish.

Whole Fried Red Snapper Lemon Chicken

The Argyle/Broadway location on Chicago’s North Side is well-known for the many Vietnamese and Thai restaurants. You can find just about any one of the two on any corner and in between and you can also find them filled with other Vietnamese and Thai patrons, a true indication of the authenticity of the restaurants. We had no particular restaurant in mind for this dinner outing and because we picked Tien Giang on a whim, it made the dining experience that more enjoyable. The price of the entire meal was not one to have us chopping the tables in half. The service was absolutely great. [I could name numerous restaurants that could take notes.] And the food was outstanding. This was a winner in ever since of the word, says the man with an easy appetite.

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