Vietnamese in the heart of Chinatown

March 25, 2009 10:36:48 AM PDT
Chinatown restaurants are gearing up for a lot of visitors tonight for the first-ever "Chinatown Dining Tour." While you may think every restaurant there is Chinese, there are actually a couple of Vietnamese restaurants worth a visit, and they'll be participating in the dining tour as well. There's The Noodle down on South Wentworth, where it's pretty much all about the pho, or beef noodle soup. But up on Cermak, Cafe Hoang also offers a taste of Vietnam, and two dishes in particular caught my attention recently: the freshest spring rolls and one of the best versions of tamarind soup I've ever encountered.

You expect plates of noodles and bowls of steaming soup in Chinatown.. But in terms of Vietnamese restaurants, there are only two. One of them is Cafe Hoang. Located on a busy stretch of Cermak, it has quite a few notable dishes.

"I had a lot of the Vietnamese Americans, they came here for so long or Chinese Vietnamese people, they came here for so long, many years. Then they ask me to start, to do the Vietnamese restaurant, traditional food," said Jason Tran, owner of Café Hoang.

One of his traditional items is the goi cuon, or cold spring rolls. He begins with dried rice sheets that are briefly dipped in warm water to loosen them up, making them sticky and pliable. Fresh leaf lettuce is laid down on top, then bits off cooked pork and boiled shrimp. A handful of boiled vermicelli noodles goes onto the lettuce, and then everything is rolled up and served immediately, along with a sweet, hoisin-based dipping sauce embedded with crushed peanuts.

"We have two different type, because one egg roll is for the general people, but the spring roll is usually like more in the South; people eating with the spring roll -- the fresh with the vegetable inside," Tran said.

Tran also makes a terrific tamarind soup. He ladles out some of his beef stock that's already been simmering for hours. Into it, he adds some dried tamarind, along with catfish, although you could add other proteins at this point.

"Concentrate different. You cannot put more than one spoonful; make the soup taste better and flavored better," Tran said.

The tamarind, fish and chile sauce simmer on the stove. Meanwhile, into a hot pot go bean sprouts, and some fresh okra and taro stem -- both of which have been briefly boiled to soften them. The catfish and broth are poured into the hot pot.. then the final, crucial ingredient is added. It's called rice paddy herb; apparently a direct translation is difficult, but it gives the soup an aroma and flavor that is unparalleled. To serve, just place some white rice in a bowl, then ladle over the rich, steaming broth and enjoy.

"Serving over rice or some request people ask for the noodles," said Tran.

Cafe Hoang is participating in the Chinatown Dining Tour. For $20 you'll get access to tastes from more than 20 restaurants in the area. It starts at 5:30 and runs until 9 p.m.

Cafe Hoang
232 W. Cermak Rd.

Chinatown Dining Tour
Wednesday, March 25
5:30 p.m. -9 p.m.

Check in at :

New Three Happiness
2130 S. Wentworth Ave.

-Taste samples from over 20 restaurants and bakeries
-food served on a first-come, first-served basis