One Bite: bun mam, aka Vietnamese gumbo | Bleader

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

One Bite: bun mam, aka Vietnamese gumbo

Posted By on 01.18.12 at 04:00 PM

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bun mam, Viet Nam Restaurant
The Vietnamese stretch of Argyle Street has seen better days. Take a stroll after sundown and it can seem downright intimidating, with storefront after storefront shuttered and nobody daring to tread into the dark beyond Tank Noodle (which, frankly, hasn't been up to snuff lately either). Maybe that's why more people didn't notice back in October when a new restaurant opened on the corner of Argyle and Kenmore, the former home of Anh Linn Seafood, and prior to that the only place in town you could get butter-fried bear meat.

But some folks noticed. Nha Hang Viet Nam won a core group of boosters on LTHForum in early November, but every time I've been in it's been practically deserted. Hopefully that'll change (yesterday Tasting Table caught on), but for now it's a shame, because this little spot is putting out an astonishing array of interesting and well made dishes beyond the double standards of pho and banh mi. (Incidentally, the actual name is simply Viet Nam—"Nha Hang" just means "the restaurant"—which gives it a bit of a Google problem.)

It's a huge menu to explore, but a few key dishes have emerged as solid winners: rare beef or squid salad with monstrous fresh-fried shrimp chips, fish sauce-marinated chicken wings, deep-fried garlic butter frog's legs, water spinach with fermented bean curd, and clay-pot pork and shrimp—a kho, a hallmark Vietnamese cooking technique in which the fish or meat is cooked down in a bitter caramel sauce—served with a side of pickled cabbage.

The pho is OK, nothing revelatory, so I'll join the small chorus and recommend you fill your soup requirement with the bun mam, aka Vietnamese gumbo, a sour seafood soup not unlike Thai tom yam that originated in the Mekong Delta. It may not best the bowl you'd cool down with in the sweltering damp of Saigon's Ben Thanh market—that one incorporates pork too—but it's a solid one, brimming with eggplant, shrimp, squid, and silky, thinly sliced fish, accompanied by a heaping side of bean sprouts, cilantro, mint, and jalapeños.

Bun refers to the steamed rice vermicelli, which can be a bit mushy. But the key to this soup is the mam, as in mam ca loc (fermented fish paste) or mam tom (fermented shrimp paste), a murky purple slurry that on its own is one of the most odoriferous substances this side of a tannery fire. But added judiciously to soups or stir-fries it provides the elusive element of deep rounded flavor that puts the mam in umami.

Nha Hang Viet Nam, 1032 W. Argyle, 773-878-8895

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