Southern Vietnamese cuisine

July 23, 2010

I had a chance to try some dishes with a southern Vietnamese accent this week, and all of it was delicious.

Jackie Conley is originally from southern Vietnam. When she longs for a taste of home, she heads to Tien Giang in Uptown, where they specialize in the cuisine from her native region.

"The southern food, they have a lot of different dishes and the food usually has a sweeter taste and it's... since I came here when I was little the southern food reminded me a lot about my country," said Conley.

There's a lot more than just pho - the ubiquitous beef noodle soup.

"I like this restaurant because they have this one called hu teiu my tho. My tho is the name of a town that was running along the Mekong River on the South side and this is their special food," Conley said.

Fried onions, fresh herbs and lettuce mingle with plump shrimp and liver, submerged in hearty pork stock, garnished with a fried shrimp chip. Feel free to dip anything into a lime juice-fueled paste of salt and pepper. That's not all.

"I see a couple of soups on this table. What is this soup? This is an awfully big soup.
- Right, this is what we call the canh chua.
Canh chua?
And what's in it?
- Canh is fish..soup..and we put fish in here.."

Catfish, actually, plus a native green called zoh munn, plus okra and tomatoes. Caramelized catfish stews in a claypot for another hearty option.. there's also a combo plate featuring an assortment of grilled beef rolls and skewers. Conley says one dish really takes her back.

"So I noticed this big pancake. What is this called and why is it so important?
- The pancake name, we call it Banh Xeo.
Banh Xeo?
- Banh Xeo is avery popular dish for the southerner."

It begins with a tumeric-colored crepe, containing coconut milk; shrimp, pork and bean sprouts are stuffed inside. At the table, you tear off a piece of the crepe, take some lettuce, add fresh cucumbers, mint and cilantro, maybe some basil to it..A little carrot for more crunch. Daikon radish.

Then wrap everything up into a tidy little package.

"It's herbal. It's crunchy, it's soft. There is no spice at all. It's very mild but you taste the herbs and the crunch from the carrot and daikon."
- Yeah, that's it. That's how it's supposed to be.
So Vietnamese food has to have this balance all the time.
- Right."

"Jackie I love the smell of the tamarind in here as well from the soup. Now how do you say 'this is delicious.'
- Ngon quá.
Ngon qua? It is very Ngon qua. Thank you for showing me how to eat Vietnamese food."

This time of year, you also have to try a "ca fe sua da," or iced coffee. Made with intense coffee and sweetened, condensed milk, it's the perfect way to keep cool.

Tien Giang 4925 N. Broadway, unit B 773-275-4928

Some of Jackie Conley's other favorite Vietnamese restaurants:

Hai Yen
1055 W. Argyle St.

Also, 2723 N. Clark St.

Tank Noodle
4953 N. Broadway

Café Hoang
1010 W. Argyle St.

Also, 232 W. Cermak Rd.

Hoanh Long
6144 N. Lincohn Ave

Pho 777
1065 W. Argyle St.

Le's Pho
4925 N Broadway # G

Pho 888
1137 Argyle Street

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