'Assembly required' for some Chicago cuisine

When food reporter Steve Dolinsky hears the words "some assembly required," he usually grimaces because he's not all that handy. But when it comes to restaurant work, it's a different story.

From Salvadorean pupusas to Asian crepes, he tried two options this week of dishes that require some assembly. Both had delicious results.

In Thailand, do-it-yourself snacks are nothing new. Many times, a dish can be savored in a single bite. Such is the case with the "One Bite Noodle" plate at Ruby of Siam, which has locations in Skokie, Evanston, and more recently, the Loop.

"In Thailand, when they eat, everything is like in one bite," said Ruby of Siam's Sunipa Dhalawong. "A lot of people, they don't know what it is. What it looks like and they don't order it, but when you order it, you're stuck with it."

You begin by taking a piece of crisp, iceberg lettuce, then tearing off a chunk of rice noodle; place that inside the lettuce. Then, take a few teaspoonfuls of the ground curry chicken, topped with roasted shallots and finally, a tiny drizzle of a cucumber-infused sweet and sour sauce. Once assembled, pop it into your mouth.

"When you get the hang of it, it's good. It's like, your own hand and just taking you to your mouth. Just one bite. The taste of everything," said Dhalawong.

Vietnam has a similar do-it-yourself dish, called Bahn Xeo. It's essentially a giant crepe. At Pho Xua in Uptown, nearly everything on the menu is a bit more refined than its Argyle neighbors. The Bahn Xeo begins with a tumeric-infused rice batter, heated in a skillet. Chunks of fresh shrimp and pork belly, also known as bacon, are cooked into the batter. A handful of tiny mung beans is scattered across the top, and a lid is added to steam and firm up the batter. A bunch of beansprouts are added to one side, then the crepe is folded in half, plated, and brought to the table.

Another plate, holding romaine lettuce, a bunch of fresh herbs, a small salad of shredded carrots and daikon, plus sliced cucumbers, is set down next to the crepe.

"The traditional way we wrap is inside the lettuce, with some herbs in there. But some people like to eat the crepe by itself," said Pho Xua's Van Huynh.

It's best to wrap things up. Take some lettuce, add a chunk of the crispy crepe with pork and shrimp, then tear off some fresh mint or basil, add some carrot-daikon salad and maybe a cucumber. Then, once you wrap it all up, dip it gingerly into a bowl of seasoned fish sauce. The combination of flavors and textures is remarkable.

"It could be an appetizer, if you share it with two people. [If] you have it by yourself, [it] can be an entree," Huynh said.

Vietnamese menus have several do-it-yourself dishes, including a spring roll using rice paper sheets instead of lettuce.

Ruby of Siam

170 W. Washington



9420 Skokie Blvd., Skokie


1125 Emerson St., Evanston


Pho Xua

1020 W. Argyle St.


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