Where are you taking me, Megan?

pancake

This afternoon I went to see K and her new baby – possibly one of the cutest babies ever. After some good cuddling with the bambino and a long overdue catch-up with K, I was back on the El to meet my friend and fellow food blogger, Megan of No Chefs Allowed.

Megan suggested we eat some sort for ethnic food – either Indian or Vietnamese – and I chose Vietnamese since I can’t get good Vietnamese in Boston. She suggested Nha Hange Viet Nam on West Argyle Street in “Little Vietnam”. I don’t know Chicago well at all, and I was early of course. Like a half an hour early, so I thought I would just wander around and explore the neighborhood a bit or perhaps grab a drink in one of the bars.

Yeah. It wasn’t really like that. I stepped out of the station into a dirty, run down area where most of the shops and restaurants were locked up for the evening, rusted metal folding gates pulled tightly shut across them. Ranting homeless men wandered the streets amongst the other generally rough-looking characters. I walked a couple of blocks in each direction hoping that I’d end up on a street that was less dodgy. But no luck.

I was literally getting a bit scared to be out on the street as dusk was starting to descend, so I went to the restaurant, which didn’t look a very promising either. Slightly run down from the outside, the inside was a cluttered mishmash of laminate tables and chairs, sagging plants, and dusty Christmas decorations hanging in the windows. A smiling older Vietnamese man greeted me, pointing me to one of the 9 tables. He brought 2 menus, the glass pot from an automatic coffee maker that was instead full of tea, and two tiny glasses covered with candy canes.

Vietnamese Tea

The vast number of options on the menu – six pages – concerned me as it’s often an indicator of a restaurant that is trying to be everything to everyone and doesn’t perpare any dish particularly well. But it gave me a lot to study while waiting for Megan and attempting to explain to our  waiter why I was still waiting to order. His English was very limited.

Vietnamese Menu

Finally Megan arrived and was equally as overwhelmed by the menu. Despite my half hour study of it, I still wasn’t sure what to order. So we left it in the hands of our waiter to bring us the dishes he thought best. This required some consultation with another waiter who spoke better English.

For starters we had the pancake pictured above. When the waiter showed us “pancake” (Banh Xeo) on the menu, I pictured a plate of smallish pancakes, maybe 5 or 6 inches in diameter – like the scallion pancakes one gets at a Chinese restaurant. But this was a Pancake, almost a foot in diameter, edges sticking out off the side of the plate, and mound ofvibrantly green  mint, lettuce, and lime slices  on the side. It was filled with shrimp, bean sprouts, and carrots and looked much like a very crispy omlette. But it wasn’t eggy at all. After some investigation, I’ve learned that there are no eggs in it – the batter is typically rice flour, turmeric or saffron, coconut milk, and water or beer. It was served with nuoc cham, that fantastic sweet and tangy dipping sauce made with lime juice, rice vinegar, garlic, spicy peppers and fish sauce. I could eat that with a spoon.

The other appetizer they brought us was papaya salad (Goi Du Du Tom Thit) which was shredded papaya with shrimp, basil, bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, lime juie and serrano chilis. Garnished with 4 shrimp “chips”, the salad’s bright acidity and slight spicyness balanced the rich pancake that was slightly oily from the coconut milk.

For dinner, we had the shrimp in tamarind glaze. Heads, shells, and legs still on, the shrimp appeared to be very lightly floured, then deepfried and coated in a sweet-sour tamarind glaze, the rich spice of the tamarind lending a depth and umamil not normally found in sweet and sour sauces. Though neither one of us could get around the shells. They were nearly impossible to get off. I think we were supposed to leave them on and eat them, but that didn’t really work either – it was much like eating a hard boiled egg with the shell still on. Too much crunchiness.

They also served us catfish in a clay pot with a peppery fish sauce. I think it Ca Kho To, but not positive. And of course we had rice. It’s also BYOB, so we enjoyed a bottle of white wine with dinner. All in all, the food was fantastic, and the company even better. Definitely a place to get fantastic, and cheap, authentic Vietnamese food. Would I go again? Definitely. Just never by myself.

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