Sunday, May 05, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: A Friendly Foray Into Vietnam, with No Pho

New Saigon
5000 N Broadway, Chicago
Menu Pages
Note: Cash Only

What I ate: Tom Cuon (shrimp rolls), Mi Xao Don Thit Heo (crispy yellow noodle with pork), Bo Xao Dau Hoa Lan (stir-fried beef with pea pods)

Given my aim to explore a variety of cultural cuisines--many largely or entirely new to me--it would seem that if one has a particularly emblematic dish, I should choose to try and spotlight it.

Prior to the present occasion, I would guess I've eaten Vietnamese food fewer than five times in my life--almost all of them before a concert in the Lawrence and Broadway corridor (i.e. Uptown), whether at the Riviera, Aragon or Green Mill.

Just a bit north on Broadway, clustered near--and also east on--Argyle St. are a number of Asian restaurants, several of them Vietnamese.

On each previous dining occasion that I recall, I was convinced to order Pho--a large soup bowl containing the
protein of one's choice and several vegetables--which is to Vietnamese food seemingly what Pad Thai is to Thai food; i.e. the quintessential dish, at least as digested in America.

Although I've never found Pho distasteful, I have also never found it to be delicious. Perhaps this is due to not being all that excited by vegetables, but eating Pho for me entails fishing around a bland soup broth to find a few bland pieces of beef or pork.

So in being no great friend of Pho, in looking for a local Vietnamese restaurant to visit for my Chicago Dining World Tour, I was impressed by the vastness of the New Saigon menu. While they certainly do have Pho, they have a rather vast array of other dishes as well (which, to be fair, so may many of their Uptown neighbors).

Last Sunday, after a nice time touring around Hyde Park with my mom, and knowing of no uniquely ethnic restaurants in that area to try, we decided to take LSD to Lawrence for an exploration of Vietnamese food at New Saigon.

We arrived at 5000 N. Broadway around 5:00 to find easy seating despite one table being occupied by about 20 guests, and a couple others in use.

We were greeted by a very friendly man--I wouldn't be shocked if he was the owner--who was singlehandedly handling all front-of-house duties, and likely assisting in the kitchen as well.

For an appetizer, we ordered, as shown: Tom Cuon = shrimp, noodle and vegetables rolled in rice paper served with peanut sauce.

These were good, especially given the dipping sauce, but I can't say they were better than fried Egg Rolls or spring rolls--either soft or fried--of the Thai variety.

For an entree, even without Pho in the equation, I changed my mind about four times before settling on Mi Xao Don Thit Heo = crispy yellow noodle with pork. 

A solid portion cost just $6.50 and what made it quite enjoyable was the flavoring of the crispy noodles, which when combined with their texture, brought life to the mildness of the pork and vegetables.

Still not the greatest thing I've ever tasted, but I liked it more than Pho and would more happily revisit it sometime down the road.

My mom ordered Bo Xao Dau Hoa Lan = stir-fried beef with pea pods, served with rice.

She also was sufficiently satisfied by it as an inexpensive dinner of which she took half home for later--combined, our total check at yet another Cash Only restaurant (1, 2) was just $20--but seemed unlikely to be writing books, or even blog posts, about how extraordinary it was.

Perhaps the most acutely enjoyable aspect of my meal at New Saigon--except for the company of course--I almost miscued my way out of.

Initially, when the waiter/owner(?)/host/cashier asked us about drinks, I ordered a Diet Coke, almost by default.

But before it came, I noticed the menu offered Fruit Shakes, in the flavors of Avocado, Pineapple, Jackfruit and Guanabana. No offense to the other, more exotic varieties, but with Pineapple being among my favorite of all flavors, this sounded really good, especially for just $2.00.

Fortunately, the Diet Coke arrived in an unopened can, so I was able to send it back in favor of Sinh To Thom, the pineapple shake.

I couldn't quite guess at what accompanied the pineapple flavoring, but the consistency was not that of a milkshake, smoothie, Slurpee or lassi, despite having a good amount of thickness.

But it was quite good, and while the service, price, crispy noodles, exploratory aspect and hanging out with my mom made this visit to New Saigon pleasurable, the Pineapple Shake is likely what would most move me to return.

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