2 staples anchor every Vietnamese menu

May 8, 2009 (CHICAGO) As we explore the countries of Asia this month, we're going to take a closer look at a few important dishes. They're iconic in nature, and always delicious. For Vietnam, we headed up to Argyle Street, of course, in Uptown, where two dishes in particular are on pretty much every restaurant's menu.

There are a few indicators or measurements of a truly authentic Vietnamese menu. At Pho 888, for example, one of many options along Argyle Street, two of the standard-issue mainstays are bahn xeo, a stuffed rice flour crepe and pho, the namesake beef noodle soup.

"The reason it became popular is because Vietnamese people usually the main food is rice, plain rice. So they want to modify the rice to become noodle," said Hien Hoang of Pho 888.

But they also use rice flour. Consider the bahn xeo: they typically begin by frying a few shards of cooked pork in a skillet, then pouring in a tumeric-laced batter of rice flour. Once it sets, crunchy bean sprouts and par-boiled shrimp are mounded up in the middle. A lid is placed over the top to steam and cook everything. A little oil is added to crisp up the outside, then it's simply removed to a plate. But this is where it gets interesting: to eat, you cut off a wedge of the crepe, then place it into fresh lettuce, followed by a choice of cilantro, daikon radish and cucumbers. Once you wrap it up, you then dip it into salty fish sauce, in essence, making the ultimate Vietnamese wrap.

Then there is the pho. Like all good ones, the broth must simmer for hours, along with a bouquet garni of cloves and star anise.

"It's really healthy because all the bone, all the meat that you cook be like six to eight hours, so that way you know the fat is gone. That way it became really nutritional and healthy," said Hoang.

First, boiled rice noodles, then your choice of beef. You might opt for tripe or tendon, but brisket or flank are just as well. Some thinly-sliced raw eye of round goes on top, but the hot broth literally cooks that beef in seconds. Sliced, white onions and fresh cilantro provide additional, aromatic flavors. Wash everything down with a bracing yet sweet Vietnamese iced coffee, an ideal cool contrast to the aromatic, steaming bowl of deliciousness.

"The reason pho became popular is because it could be served at breakfast, lunch and dinner. So anytime would be good, and also it's hot, it's a hot soup," Hoang said.

You don't have to travel to argyle street of course. There are great Vietnamese restaurants everywhere, from Carol Stream to Chinatown. And no matter where you go, you can always be sure these two dishes will be on the menu.

Pho 888
1137 W. Argyle St.

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