The owners of Phodega, almost hidden on the first floor of an A-frame next to a construction site, had two things in mind when opening: hearty, steaming bowls of noodle soup, and groceries.
"We wanted a place where we could sell everything we wanted," said co-owner Nathan Hoops.
That means cleaning supplies and Asian sauces; Kleenex and Thai potato chips. It's a neighborhood bodega cross-pollinated with a Vietnamese snack shop.
EXTRA COURSE: A look at the "snack" section of the menu at Phodega in Wicker Park
"We did the menu small on purpose. These are items we grew up eating. We wanted to focus on those things," he said.
Most of the kitchen's focus is on their stock pot, where beef bones and brisket cook away all day, along with onions and fresh ginger root. The secret weapon is the spice blend - here it's cinnamon, cardamom, fennel and cloves - and they will sit in the simmering stock all day, while someone is tasked with skimming the broth to keep it clear.
"Twenty-four hours a day. If it's not for today it's for tomorrow. If we run out, then we're out. That's the challenge we face as a small kitchen," said Hoops.
Rice stick noodles are briefly dunked in water to soften them; those go into the bowls first. Then depending on your order, perhaps raw rib eye, some brisket; a handful of thinly-sliced white onions and cilantro, then some meatballs and the steaming hot broth, which literally cooks the raw rib eye upon contact. A side plate of bean sprouts, jalapeno and basil is there just in case you want to doctor things up, but it's not necessary. There's also a chicken version available, if the beef version seems to heavy.
"It's a little different, a little bit lighter than the richer beef broth," he said.
They also have a pair of chicken and rice dishes, inspired by the wonderful Hainanese chicken rice. A mound of rice seasoned with chicken stock goes first, then some of their ginger-scallion sauce, cucumbers and a few crispy pieces of chicken skin. Finally, lightly poached chicken that gets just a whisper of sesame oil. Alongside, a cup of pure chicken broth.
"The chicken rice itself is sautéed with chicken fat and cooked in chicken broth," he said.
Hoops said he gets all kinds of customers - some who just want to eat, others who realize they just need something for home.
"We have people who come for snacks, people on their way out, they'll grab a roll of toilet paper, it's a little bit of everything," he said.
Up until now, finding a bowl of pho in the city meant driving all the way up Argyle in Uptown, but not anymore. Phodega has got that covered, not only with bowls of pho but also those important items to have at home like Thai-flavored potato chips.
1547 N. Ashland Ave.