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If your mother was Vietnamese, she probably made pho when you were sick. If not, there’s always Hai Yen restaurant on Argyle Street in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood serving up a feast of the senses and the seasons.
Pho is like the Vietnamese version of chicken noodle soup. If a good bowl of pho warms the body, soothes during sickness, and satisfies the soul, the bowl of Pho Dac Biet at Hai Yen may change lives. It’s a tasty conglomeration of hearty cuts of beef brisket, beef flank, meatballs, bible tripe, tendon, rice noodles, and scallions floating in a light beef broth.
Pho’s true origins are unclear, but the dish made its first appearance in the 1880’s after the French occupation of Hanoi. One school suggests that Vietnamese cooks and servants learned to make “pot au feu” from their occupiers, and adapted the recipe to local tastes. The French are no strangers to using all parts of the animal, and so, what to do with the tendon and the stomach lining? Make soup of course. To be honest, the tripe and the tendon aren’t texturally pleasing, with the former, rubbery, and the latter stringy, but the proteins and collagens within provide depth and richness to the broth.
The pho at Hai Yen, is accompanied by a flavor buffet of fresh-cut sweet basil, sawtooth shaped culantro, a mound of bean sprouts, a wedge of lime, and a small bowl of Sriracha (garlic chili sauce) and sweet plummy Hoisin. The pho needs little accoutrement, but a dash of fresh herbs, a touch of acid from the lime, and a dab of the spicy and sweet sauces makes the bowl sublime.
After slurping up the first spoonful, you can luxuriate in the steam from the broth, forgot about the razor chafe of winter wind cutting through Chicago, and savor the taste of contentment. You can forget yourself in a bowl like this.
The bowl of pho is large, and a meal all by its lonesome, but at Hai Yen, the menu is the culinary equivalent of War and Peace, with 120 numbered items, not including drinks and dessert. Stopping is not an option.
Gui Cuon, or traditional Vietnamese rice paper spring rolls, filled with steamed pork, shrimp, vermicelli noodles, basil and mint, served with a spicy peanut sauce, is crispy and refreshing, like spring in a blanket.
Tom Cuon Thit Nuong, or grilled beef slices marinated in lemongrass, sesame seeds, and honey, wrapped around grilled shrimp recall a summer bbq. The smokiness of the grilled meat, the sweet dab of honey, the crispy grill char, and the plump succulence of the shrimp make the perfect portable surf and turf.
The waitstaff is friendly, courteous, and respectful. Many of the restaurants on Argyle St. are cafeteria style food mills. Some are dirty and univiting, and while dirt has often been a sign that tasty opportunities await the patient food exporer, thankfully, at Hai Yen, there is no dirt, and there are many tasty things to come.
Hai Yen is located at 1055 W. Argyle St. in Chicago. Hours are 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday; 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday; 9:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday; closed Wednesday. Phone number is 773-561-4077.