Restaurants: Argyle Street and Beyond, September 25, 2008 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Restaurants: Argyle Street and Beyond, September 25, 2008 

Twenty Asian restaurants in Uptown

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Argyle Street and BeyondTwenty Asian restaurants in Uptown

Ba Le Sandwich Shop5018 N. Broadway | 773-561-4424

$Asian, Vietnamese | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations not accepted

The banh mi (Vietnamese subs) at this modest storefront are pictured and numbered behind the counter for easy reference. Crusty rolls begin with mayo, cilantro, a squirt of fish sauce, jalapeño, and pickled daikon and carrot. Next come the fillings, all made in-house. The pork sausage, or cha lua (literal translation: "white fabric"), is mild and bolognalike in texture. Bypass the chicken—it's bland. The pork paté isn't. The vegetarian banh mi, a rarity on Argyle, has toothsome strips of fried tofu, and the shrimp cake banh mi, a personal favorite, is light and airy. Ba Le premakes a number of its more popular banh mi to anticipate customer surges. To avoid a dated sandwich, ask for a custom alteration—extra fish sauce or no jalapeño, for example. Be careful with the extra fish sauce, though—you risk clearing out an el car if you take your sandwich home with you. —Peter Tyksinski

Cafe Hoang1010 W. Argyle | 773-878-9943

$asian, vietnamese, Thai | Lunch, dinner: Sunday-Monday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Tuesday

A renovation has saved Cafe Hoang from looking trashier than the New York Dolls. The variety and freshness of the ingredients remains top-notch. Bowls of thin Vietnamese soup (served with rice on the side) are big and delicious; the tamarind soup with shrimp or fish and lots of vegetables is particularly pungent. Steamed rice dishes are good too, and are often served with a bowl of appropriate sauce in addition to the hot sauces already on the table—one of which seems to consist of nothing but coarse-chopped chiles in fish sauce. —Ann Sterzinger

Chiu Quon Bakery1127 W. Argyle | 773-907-8888

$Asian, Vietnamese | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Cash only

Drab, utilitarian storefront brightened by the toasty golden glow of its bakery cases, lined with Asian buns, rolls, and flaky cakes filled with sweet bean pastes, vividly yellow egg custard, sugary ground peanuts, or even a mix of candied melon and onion. They're not quite panaderia cheap, but they're close: a sesame ball, filled with adzuki-bean paste and deep-fried, will set you back 70 cents, and a barbecue pork bun costs 90. Chiu Quon is open from 8 AM to 7 PM seven days a week. —Philip Montoro

Dib Sushi Bar and Thai Cuisine1025 W. Lawrence | 773-561-0200

$$Asian, Thai, Japanese | Lunch, dinner: seven days | BYO

Neighborhood Thai-sushi restaurants are ubiquitous these days, but it's rare you'll find one as accomplished as this Uptown storefront. White floor-to-ceiling drapes hang in the large front windows that flood the room with light; the sushi bar is sleek and black—as are the chopsticks. The smell of teriyaki lured us into starting with yakitori, smoky and moist; besides the usual starters (gyoza, gomae, crab Rangoon) there's soft shell crab and hamachi sashimi with jalapeño. From the long list of maki—there are 37, including several vegetarian options—we chose the Black and White roll: superwhite tuna with avocado, cilantro, and jalapeño and splashed with lime, the flavors all nicely distinct. A Volcano roll (smoked salmon, yellowtail, crab, and octopus with spicy mayo) sold me by actually being spicy for a change. The standard curries and Thai dishes are on offer, but we went with a "signature entree," chicken katsu and grilled eggplant in a rich green curry, which came bedecked with a frill of deep-fried vermicelli. In all, it's a far cry from what you'd expect just down the street from the Lawrence el stop. There's a daily lunch special: appetizer, soup, and entree for between $6.50 and $7, and Dib is BYO for good. —Kate Schmidt

Dong Thanh4925 N. Broadway | 773-275-4928

$Asian, Vietnamese | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations not accepted | BYO

Bun bo hue won't cure cancer, but this extremely nourishing bowl of rice vermicelli and beef broth, similar to pho but not as complex, is a fine palliative for the common cold or crushing hangover. Named for the Vietnamese city of its origin, it's a fiery and slightly sweet brew bobbing with green onions, chives, cilantro, a chewy pig's knuckle, and silky cubes of congealed pig's blood. Unlike pho it's also served with raw shredded cabbage, which lends an extra element of texture, along with the more typical side garnishes of fresh chiles, mint leaves, bean sprouts, and limes. At Dong Thanh flexibility is the rule, as owners gamely offer to adjust spice levels or put any number of protein combinations into play, including seafood, chicken, pork skin, and barbecued duck. The array of liquid garnishes on each table—black vinegar, chile, fish, soy, and "rooster" sauces, pickled chiles, and garlic oil—ensures that no two bowls are completely alike. —Mike Sula

Hai Yen1055 W. Argyle | 773-561-4077

$$asian, Vietnamese, Chinese | Lunch, dinner: Sunday-Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday | Closed Wednesday

The extensive menu at this cheerful Vietnamese restaurant features several dozen appetizers, salads, dumplings, soups, and noodles and a host of seafood, meat, and poultry entrees. Hu tieu dac biet is a soup loaded with shrimp, crab, bean sprouts, and chewy rice noodles; goi cuon are featherlight spring rolls filled with shrimp, pork, carrots, lettuce, and vermicelli rice noodles and served with a plum dipping sauce. The banh combination is a more unusual appetizer option: six banh beo (tiny rice-flour crepes meant to be wrapped around the accompanying fresh carrots and bean sprouts), four banh bot loc (tapioca dumplings filled with bits of pork and chicken), and two banh nam (thick, chewy disks of rice batter, pork, and chicken steamed in bamboo leaves and served with a fish sauce). Many entrees are served family style, and there are a number of multicourse family meals available, including a traditional Vietnamese option called bo bay mon: seven courses of beef prepared seven different ways. There's a second location at 2723 N. Clark (773-868-4888). —Laura Levy Shatkin

La Banh Mi Hung Phat4942 N. Sheridan | 773-878-6688

$Asian, Vietnamese | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday-Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday | Closed Wednesday | Cash only

Not to be confused with the adjoining but unrelated Vinh Phat, known for its fantastic barbecued ducks, La Banh Mi Hung Phat serves some of the best banh mi on Argyle—though you may have to work for it. On my first visit a helpful but strict woman named Michelle wouldn't sell me the three sandwiches arranged on the counter because they'd been sitting there too long. Come back early in the morning, she told me. I appreciated this, but when I returned she'd make me nothing more than a single pork-skin banh mi—long chewy strands of skin dressed in nuoc cham, the sweet, spicy fish sauce. She advised me to return on subsequent mornings to sample other varieties. The extra effort was worth it: the tender roast pork is flecked with delectable bits of caramelized skin, and the shredded chicken is redolent of the spices applied to the ducks next door. Other varieties distinguished themselves as well: the Chinese barbecued pork had large chunks of meat, and the grilled marinated pork was cooked halfway to jerky (not a criticism) and steeped in a visibly herby spice mixture. My favorite, the "steamed pork ball," is an eviscerated meatball, sort of like the coarsely ground, extrafunky Issan-style Thai sausage. —Mike Sula

Pho 8881137 W. Argyle | 773-907-8838

$Asian, Vietnamese | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | BYO

There's more to Pho 888 than just pho, the Southeast Asian noodle soup that marries funky meat and vibrantly fresh vegetables within a complex broth. Our spring rolls were constructed of delicate rice tissues and layers of sparkling mint leaves enfolding marinated beef and onion and thick as a Maxwell Street Polish. Cha is a house-made sausage of minced ham, potato, and fish sauce—our server told us they serve up to 1,000 orders of this Vietnamese bologna a week. Throwbacks to French colonial days, banh mi are minibaguettes stuffed with meat and vegetables: we were tickled by one of sweet grilled pork, cucumbers, onions, and green shoots, a savory fistful of bright tastes and contrasting textures. Bowls of orange fish sauce are spiked with, for instance, garlic or ginger to make each more suitable to a specific dish. With around 200 reasonably priced menu items, there's much more to explore, including congees (rice porridges) and fish in clay pots. No alcohol is served, so we sipped a smoothie of durian, the sulphurously stinky "King of Fruit" rendered edible with cream, sugar, and ice—and an odor-containing plastic lid. —David Hammond

Pho Hoa4925 N. Broadway | 773-784-8723

$Asian, Vietnamese | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days

With all the pho joints around Argyle, there's always the nagging thought that no matter which one chooses there's another serving a subtler, more aromatic bowl of the Vietnamese beef noodle soup; among phoficionados such places rise and fall in favor continuously. But Pho Hoa, tucked inside a Broadway strip mall along a tight parking lot in perpetual gridlock, continues to dish out sublime bowls of soup. Available in a relatively limited 20 combinations, the potent broth was awaft in a harmonic perfume of ginger, cinnamon, and star anise. Noodles seemed fresh, not precooked, and each bowl was dosed with liberal portions of meat. The pho list is broken into three categories: "For the Beginner," offering lean cuts of steak, brisket, or meatballs; "A Little Bit of Fat," which augments those cuts with flank steak, tripe, or fatty brisket; and third and largest, "Adventurer's Choice," featuring still fattier cuts and tendon, plus a version with chicken broth. All are accompanied by the usual garnishes—fresh lime, jalapeno, mint leaves, and bean sprouts—and the truly heroic can request a small bowl of luxuriant golden fat to drizzle on top. Fruit shakes, coffee drinks, and several varieties of che, the popular pudding-type sweet, fill out the menu. —Mike Sula

Pho 7771065 W. Argyle 773-561-9909

$Asian, Vietnamese | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday-Monday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Tuesday | BYO

"Eye of round steak, well done flanks, fat brisket, soft tendon, bible tripe, and meat balls" reads the description of Pho's signature item, the Special 777. But it's not as double double toil and trouble as that might sound: doctored with mint leaves, cucumber, and the four chile sauces on offer, this substantial beef-noodle soup had even my squeamish friend tucking in, though if you're tripe resistant there are 18 other variations to choose from, along with an array of pork and seafood soups and hot pots. The banh xeo, Vietnamese pancake, was filled with slices of pork and notably fresh shrimp and also benefited from the chile sauce (what doesn't?). The only dish to disappoint was the traditional catfish cooked in a clay pot, which tasted far more powerfully of soy sauce than of lemongrass. Group meals are popular at this utilitarian dining room, which grew festive when a party of eight moved in. Foremost Liquors, just down the street, has a surprisingly good selection of wines. I splurged on a Grand Cru—at $36, it was $16 more than our meal. —Kate Schmidt

Pho Xe Lua1021 W. Argyle | 773-275-7512

$asian, Vietnamese, Chinese | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday-Wednesday, Friday-Saturday Closed Thursday | BYO

The list of Vietnamese treats available at Pho Xe Lua is almost inexhaustible: 200 food choices and 28 nonalcoholic drinks. There's a list of congees (soups with a thick boiled-rice broth), pages of noodle dishes, rice steamed and fried, firepots (meat dishes served in a sizzling-hot metal bowl), and even two perfectly toothsome French-style beef dishes (imperialist culture hasn't been so well assimilated since the Gauls picked up Latin). But creatures of habit will get stuck on a favorite, like the tasty number 175, a bowl of cool steamed rice noodles under warm, lightly blanched vegetables and tofu with fish sauce on the side, one of seven "vegetable" dishes. (Each of the three I've tried has been light and good, but purists might want to ask for a specific list of ingredients.) Most entrees are under ten bucks, except for the specialties, which are worth their average $10-$15 price: a whole roast quail is $12.95. —Ann Sterzinger

Pho Xua1020 W. Argyle | 773-271-9828

$$Asian, Vietnamese | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Monday-Wednesday, Friday-Saturday | Closed Thursday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | Reservations accepted for large groups only BYO

Brothers Van and Chi Huynh worked across the street at Hai Yen for many years (in the front of the house and kitchen, respectively) but this year struck out on their own with the aim of providing a more elegant setting than most Argyle Street restaurants. Like its peers, Pho Xua offers a dizzying selection of dishes, but many of them are rare for the neighborhood (though many also appear at Hai Yen), and the freshness and quality of the ingredients seem several notches higher. With a stronger Chinese influence than usual (there's a handful of "Mandarin-style" dishes) and a large selection of pork preparations including a terrific salty house-braised belly (heo rang man), there's a huge expanse of new territory to explore here at the neighborhood's customarily budget-friendly prices. Take the grilled betel leaf-beef appetizer—ground beef fingers tightly wrapped in a dark green dusky-flavored vegetal skin (bo la lot)—or the lotus-stem salad (goi ngo sen), a bracing but light composition of superfresh chicken, shrimp, pork belly, basil, and lotus. Oddly enough, the pho is pretty one-dimensional: the noodles (all over the menu) are terrific, but the broth, while simple and clean, lacks the seductive note of five-spice powder. —Mike Sula

Siam Noodle & Rice4654 N. Sheridan | 773-769-6694

$Asian, Thai | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | BYO

At Siam Noodle they commit with gusto the Thai-American sin of oversweetening. But the large groups lined up outside during the owners' 4 PM lunch break knew them by name, and by the time my homely bowl of pad ped arrived I was ready to tuck in to it. The vegetables were slightly overcooked, like green beans at Christmas dinner, and it was starchy, sugary, and on the bland side. But somehow it was easy to eat anyway—call it Thai comfort food. —Ann Sterzinger

Silver Seafood4829 N. Broadway | 773-784-0668

$$Asian, Chinese | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Till 1 every night | BYO

The focus at this Mandarin restaurant is fresh seafood; they'll steam a red snapper or sea bass (or whatever else is swimming in the tank) to order, then top it with aromatic herbs and a drizzle of soy sauce. Skip the pot stickers and egg rolls on the English-language menu and ask for the Chinese menu instead, which has English translations and offerings like fried crab claws, braised cuttlefish, and boneless duck web. Main courses come in a few familiar categories—seafood, chicken, beef—and then venture into the unusual: abalone, roast pigeon. Servers are welcoming, professional, and willing to make suggestions. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Sun Wah Bar-B-Que1134 W. Argyle | 773-769-1254

$$Asian, Chinese | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday-Wednesday, Friday-Saturday | Closed Thursday

While the barbecue here is definitely worth trying, the seafood selections should not be ignored—they're fresh, flavorful, and good-size for the price. Stay away from the usual egg roll, sweet-and-sour whatever, and go for the more authentic dishes. Don't forget the soups: there are a number of noodle varieties, plus more exotic ones like shredded duck with dried scallops. You can't beat the barbecued ducks and bible tripe hanging in the window for ambience. —Claire Dolinar, Rater

Tank Noodle4955 N. Broadway | 773-878-2253

F 8.3 | S 6.7 | A 5.0 | $ (6 reports)asian, Vietnamese, Chinese | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday-Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday | Closed Wednesday | BYO

rrr Tank Noodle offers a long menu of low-priced Vietnamese treats and a few Chinese dishes. You'd swear they've got a sushi chef trapped in the kitchen, though: dishes are presented with attention to color and arrangement. At $8.95, the rice noodle soup with combination seafood (menu item 68) came with perfectly browned garlic and a nice mix of seafood, including real crab. And although there isn't quite the assortment of hot sauces you think you'll want when you sit down, when your pungent dish arrives you realize there's no need to drown it in spice. My favorite so far is item 203, marinated squid stir-fried with assorted vegetables; the plump sea monsters are cooked to a silken texture in a light sauce and mixed prettily with bell peppers.—Ann Sterzinger

Thai Aroma4144 N. Broadway | 773-404-9386

$Asian, Thai | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Till 11 every night | BYO

Everything at Thai Aroma is cheap, simple, and clean tasting. Their tom yum soup with vegetables is the most flavorful and least greasy I've had, and the vegetables are so lightly blanched they must mix them fresh into each bowl. The dining room is neat and relaxed, with linens the color of Easter candy covering the chairs and tables. It's in a strip mall, but that just means there's free parking. —Ann Sterzinger

Thai Avenue4949 N. Broadway | 773-878-2222

F 5.8 | S 6.8 | A 5.6 | $ (5 reports)Asian, Thai| Lunch, dinner: seven days | BYO

In Thailand fried chicken goes commando: no flour, egg, or breading, just marinated meat and hot oil. The result is a remarkably light, full-flavored chunk of poultry, accompanied here by a vinegary sauce with cilantro and rice powder. Try it and you may think twice about ever ordering fried chicken any other way. Some of the folks who run Thai Avenue are from Issan, in northeast Thailand, which has its own distinctive cooking style. Issan sausage, made with funky fermented rice marvelously complemented by raw garlic, ginger, and cilantro, is a taste you acquire about two bites after the initial smack in the head. Pork neck strips are rich, chewy strands of meat quite succulent with the savory sauce; "waterfall" beef is grilled strips marinated in lime, fish sauce, and chiles—a very accessible dish. Ordering off the Thai menu, available on request, we had a salad of beef larp, warm beef crumbles and slices of liver best ordered with some rice to sop up the juices, and a duck noodle stew with a sweet licorice accent from star anise. The chefs here have hot chiles, and they're not afraid to use 'em, so bring some beer or try one of the bubble teas or tapioca drinks to help you recover from Scoville overload. —David Hammond

Thai Pastry4925 N. Broadway | 773-784-5399

F 7.1 | S 6.3 | A 6.5 | $ (8 reports)Asian, Thai | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | BYO

A display case at the front of this cheerful room presents exquisite pastries created by chef-owner Aumphai ("Add") Kusub: pink-and-green rice vermicelli served with a sweet coconut-milk sauce, jewel-toned mini gelatin molds, and a variety of beautiful cakes. The menu is just as enticing, full of offerings like baby egg rolls with minced shrimp; mee krob, crispy vermicelli in a sweet plum sauce; and kuchai, pillows of freshly rolled rice noodles stuffed with chive greens in a sweet and spicy vinegar sauce. The pad lad na is a wonderful dish of wide, flat noodles in a dark sauce with shrimp and broccoli rabe. A showstopper from the back of the menu is the clam curry—lots of perfectly steamed shelled clams with long, flat strips of sour bamboo in a red curry coconut-milk broth served in a hot ceramic pot. There's also an array of whole fish like red snapper. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Vinh Phat4940 N. Sheridan | 773-878-8688

$Asian, Vietnamese, Chinese | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday-Tuesday, Thursday- Saturday | Closed Wednesday

On display at Vinh Phat are hanging barbecued ducks, chickens, and pork readily hacked and sacked for takeout. A few tables let you linger over inexpensive meat-on-rice plates or bowls of meaty soup. The duck soup with egg vermicelli has a leg on the bone as well as chunks of thigh meat. Tiny fried pork skin "croutons" add richness to the five-spice-flavored broth, which comes with fresh bean sprouts. —Peter Tyksinski

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