Restaurants: Comfort in a Pot, January 22, 2009 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Restaurants: Comfort in a Pot, January 22, 2009 

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Comfort in a Pot

Thirteen Asian noodle joints

Amarind's Thai Restaurant6822 W. North | 773-889-9999

F 7.0 | S 7.6 | A 7.6 | $$ (5 reports) Lunch: Tuesday-Saturday; Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Vegetarian friendly

If Arun Sampanthavivat's posh restaurant doesn't fit your budget, try this serene Thai eatery owned by chef Rangsan Sutcharit, a nine-year veteran of Arun's. The room is simple, but the menu, elegant plating, and painstakingly artistic garnishes are hard to beat at these prices—there's hardly a dish over $10. Fluffy chive dumplings are light as a cloud and served with a black soy dipping sauce redolent of molasses. The crab rolls are also intriguing: cylinders of ground crabmeat and chicken are rolled in tofu skin, briefly fried, then cut on the bias into one-inch-thick slices and set off by a sweet but piquant apricot honey sauce. Soup and noodle dishes are tasty, especially the house noodles—a large serving of delicate homemade spinach noodles with shrimp, crab, and bean sprouts tossed in a ground-chile-and-tamarind sauce. An entree not to be missed is the beef panang curry; while the beef was sliced a bit thin, resulting in somewhat chewy pieces, the satiny sauce was otherworldly. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Amitabul6207 N. Milwaukee | 773-774-0276

$$Lunch, dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Sunday, Monday | Reservations not accepted | BYO | Vegetarian friendly

If you're looking to impress the vegan in your life, this is the place for you. Amitabul offers an eye-popping array of vegetarian and vegan maki, stir-fries, pancakes, and noodle soups prepared with organic vegetables, tofu, legumes, and minimal oil. Dishes such as Dr. K's Cure-All (spicy noodle soup touted as, among other things, a hangover remedy), Chef Dave's Energy Nut (almonds, peanuts, and walnuts stir-fried with honey and plum sauce over noodles), and Nine Ways to Nirvana (whole-wheat noodle soup with nine-grain miso beans) illustrate the belief of owner Bill Choi in the healing power of food. —Martha Bayne

Big Pho3821 W. Lawrence | 773-482-8282

$Lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Reservations not accepted | BYO | Vegetarian friendly

A pho joint in Koreatown seemed an odd thing to me, but judging from the crowds at lunchtime it looks like a sound business plan. The pho is geared to the Korean customer base, which apparently prefers a less oily broth than the typical Vietnamese pho; the result is simmered for ten hours with beef bones. It seems to lack some of the heady spices that typify the pho on Argyle Street—I wasn't feeling much star anise—but the broth is clean and fortifying. Among the 12 varieties a full four are seafood based—and include some really pretty green mussels. Much less play is given to organy bits, though you can still get your tripe and tendon flotsam. Considering that Koreans usually don't go more than a day without some sort of soup, I'm betting Big Pho has staying power in Albany Park—but where's the kimchi? —Mike Sula

Cho Sun Ok Restaurant4200 N. Lincoln | 773-549-5555

F 7.1 | S 5.7 | A 6.6 | $ (7 reports)Lunch, dinner: seven days

Woo Bok Lee opened his restaurant in 1979, and it stands today as the oldest operating Korean restaurant in the city. People still line up nightly at the door for a table in the tight, close room, where the specialties are five varieties of naengmyeon (buckwheat noodles) and "stone pan cooking." The latter (for two or more people) involves gas burners on the table fueling a heavy stone griddle upon which a variety of seasoned meats are seared—octopus, beef, tripe, or a combination. Marinated vegetables and steamed rice (or noodles) are then cooked in the rendered juices, the rice crisps on the pan, and the resulting fabric-penetrating aromas can be whiffed down the block. Originally a North Korean specialty, naengmyeon are served cold and slippery, a bracing refreshment in hot weather, usually in light beef broth garnished with slivered cucumber or radish, hard-boiled egg, mustard, and red pepper paste. I prefer the two "dry" variations served here with hot sauce, one topped with raw, chewy skate. —Mike Sula

Dong Thanh4925 N. Broadway | 773-275-4928

$Breakfast, lunch: seven days; dinner: saturday-sunday, tuesday-thursday | 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

Joy Yee's Noodle Shop2139 S. China Pl. | 312-328-0001

F 7.4 | S 6.7 | A 6.0 | $$ (6 reports) Lunch, dinner: seven days | BYO

Joy Yee's offers accessible and well-prepared fare from China, Japan, Thailand, Korea, Vietnam, and Malaysia—and it offers a lot; the numbered menu goes up to almost 1,000. Lemongrass beef, though not bad, was not very good either, but we had a very fresh, very flavorful order of Szechuan green beans and garlic with little clumps of salty fish. Also wonderfully fresh were the ingredients in our chicken udon: meat and vegetables alike had just-from-the-market tooth. There are a number of baked rice dishes served in woodlike canisters. We had the seafood baked rice, which was OK, though I will never accept that krab is seafood. To drink there are Taiwanese bubble teas as well as tapiocas and jelly freezes. —David Hammond

Katy's Dumpling House665 N. Cass, Westmont | 630-323-9393

$$Lunch, dinner: Sunday-Tuesday, Thursday- Saturday | Closed Wednesday | Cash only | BYO

The name would suggest that dumplings are the draw here, but it's the fresh homemade noodles that instantly turn unsuspecting diners into fervent members of the cult of Katy's. There are two untranslated menus plastered on the wall of this suburban strip-mall storefront. The first lists daily specials like spicy beef tendon and cold pork stomach, which can be found in the refrigerator case (or as I like to call it, the chilled organ grab bag); the second lists frozen dumplings—pork and fennel, beef and scallion, fish stuffed—available to go. Personally I can't be bothered with such exotica when I have noodles on the brain, and fortunately the dine-in menu is translated. Stir-fried noodles with dry chile offers the perfect introduction: meat, seafood, and vegetables are stir-fried with a healthy dose of dried red chiles and served atop a big nest of the fresh noodles. Because the wok is heated properly, the whole dish takes on the smoky flavor missing from so much Panda-Wok-Suey fare. Szechuan cold noodles are just as good, the slow burn of the Szechuan-peppercorn-spiked shredded pork prevailing over the shredded cucumber that attempts to cool the palate. If you must have something other than noodles, the chewy pancake with shredded pork may be the only worthy substitute—even it's cut to look like a noodle. —Kristina Meyer

Le's Pho4925 N. Broadway | 773-784-8723

$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

Mitsuwa Marketplace100 E. Algonquin, Arlington Heights | 847-956-6699

$ lunch, dinner seven days

A visit to Mitsuwa Marketplace provides the sort of sensory overload and culture shock untraveled Occidentals have been trained to expect from the frenzy of modern Japan. The local branch of this Japanese superstore houses a cosmetic counter, bookstore, china shop, travel agent, bakery, and a liquor store with an addling array of sakes. You can spend hours wandering the wide aisles of the spotless supermarket, eyes glazing over at the rows of mysterious products in brightly colored packages. The fish department is an excellent source for unusual species and sashimi-grade seafood, and the produce section yields consistently fresh (and often pricey) fruits and vegetables with some really uncommon finds—it's the only place I know where you'll (occasionally) see fresh wasabi root. The food court presents a singular opportunity to experience the varieties of Japanese fast food locally. The sushi counter, with its plethora of prepackaged rolls, reflects the populist origins of raw fish and rice as fast food for travelers rather than the rarefied restaurant meal we've come to pay dearly for. At the curry stall, Otafuku-tei, thick gravy chunky with carrots and potatoes, is ladled over rice and accompanied by fried eggs, panko-breaded pork chops, or ground meat patties—a dish that results in such an intense MSG high I'd recommend assigning a designated driver. Next door, Kayaba specializes in bowls of udon and soba noodles; another stand, Santoka Ramen, serves the long tentacular noodles in salt-, soy-, or miso-flavored broths. The choices can be baffling, so each stall helpfully displays shiny plastic but not unappetizing models of each dish. The food court hours are 11 AM to 7:30 PM daily; the store's open from 9 AM to 8 PM. —Mike Sula

Noodles Etc.1460 E. 53rd | 773-947-8787

$Lunch, dinner: seven days | BYO

Despite the generic name, it's not part of a chain. The pan-Asian menu features lots of standards (spring rolls, pot stickers, satay) plus a few innovations like wasabi-flavored shumai (dumplings) and deep-fried vegetable croquettes, the latter made of a mashed mixture of potatoes, onions, peas, and carrots and served with sweet-and-sour sauce. Extensive noodle options include udon soups, Vietnamese vermicelli soup, lo-mein, larb nar, and the Filipino dish pancit (rice noodles with barbecue pork, egg, cabbage, carrots, and green onions). —Holly Greenhagen

Penny's Noodle Shop3400 N. Sheffield | 773-281-8222

F 6.3 | S 7.0 | A 6.3 | $ (6 reports)Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Reservations not accepted | BYO | Vegetarian friendly

"Penny's is always good and it's always cheap," decrees one Rater. "That's all you need to know." One of the first noodle houses in town back in the early 90s, Penny's continues to bustle even though the menu isn't so unusual anymore—mostly ramen and udon soups plus staples like chicken curry and lard nar. The food may be bland to some tastes—"Even the dishes labeled spicy are fairly tame," says one Rater—but it's consistent and plentiful, and most of it can be ordered vegetarian. There's another, larger outpost at 950 W. Diversey with a separate pickup area to minimize congestion (773-281-8448), a third location at 1542 N. Damen (773-394-0100), and a fourth in Oak Park at 1130 Chicago (708-660-1300). —Laura Levy Shatkin

Sunshine Cafe5449 N. Clark | 773-334-6214

F 7.7 | S 8.3 | A 5.5 | $ (8 reports)Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Reservations not accepted | BYO

rrr Noodle dishes—from nutty buckwheat soba to chewy wheat udon—dominate the menu at this home-style Japanese restaurant. Most come swimming in large bowls of broth with generous servings of vegetables or meat. A brief selection of equally impressive main courses includes sukiyaki, shrimp tempura, salmon, grilled mackerel and a pleasantly sweet chicken teriyaki. Prices are rock-bottom—one Rater calls it "one of the best bang-for-your-buck places in Chicago." Says another: "The restaurant is family run and the love vibe runs supreme. Sunshine Cafe is one of those places that you hesitate to recommend because you are afraid to blow its cover! " Too late: "Given the low prices, it is not surprising that this place seems to have a loyal local following," says another. "I definitely plan to return." —Laura Levy Shatkin

Urban Belly3053 N. California | 773-583-0500

$$Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Reservations not accepted | BYO

Often with domestic attempts to popularize or synthesize Asian cuisines, one taste predominates: sweetness. To his credit, Bill Kim doesn't try to lure babies with candy at his upscale neighborhood noodle joint Urban Belly. Instead he offers an array of pan-Asian-inspired dumplings and rice and noodle bowls with bold but occasionally wearying flavors. It's a quick-serve, sometimes frenzied communal setting that by early indications is a winning business model. The dumplings alone could carry it; offered in five distinctive varieties, they're tasty across the board. I particularly liked the ones stuffed with lamb and brandy, fragrant pork and cilantro, and duck with pho spices. But my excitement was quickly dampened by the other menu categories, particularly the greasy rice bowls—long-grain rice topped with a few small slabs of short rib, or tossed with pork belly and pineapple, pea shoots and basil, or a combination of all of the above. The noodles have a tendency to taste strikingly delicious in the first few slurps, but gradually exhaust the palate the closer you get to the bottom of the bowl. This is especially true of the saltier varieties—the rice cakes in Korean chile broth with katsu-style chicken breast, for instance, or the stir-fried egg noodles, which while nicely knotted and crispy were bathed in a broth not all that different. I did feel favorably toward the ramen, a chewy tangle with shiitake and thick slabs of pork belly. And in general, there's a lot to like in these bowls: bonito flakes, Kim's springy house-made fish cakes, the bitter Chinese broccoli that offsets the sweet chile-lime broth in the udon, the one entry that could be considered cloying. —Mike Sula

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