In the Chicagoland area, it is difficult to talk about great Asian food without mentioning Vietnamese cuisine. Unlike Chinese and Japanese cuisine; the taste of Vietnamese dishes is relatively new to Chicago and its surrounding suburbs. Nonetheless, Vietnamese food has played an integral part in Chicago’s overall map of Asian tastes.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the United States government resettled significant numbers of Vietnamese refugees to Chicago north side neighborhoods such as Uptown and Rogers Park. To Chicagoans, they came to be known as the boat people.
Many of the Vietnamese refugees who came to America did so by way of a perilous overseas journey on boats. Many of those who survived the trip planted their roots in Chicago and began buying and developing real estate in the Broadway & Argyle neighborhood where they established some of the first Vietnamese restaurants in Chicago.
Since most of the Vietnamese who settled in Chicago were from South Vietnam, the Southern Vietnamese dishes took root instead of Northern Vietnamese, which typically consists of stir fries and noodle based soups. Since South Vietnam is of tropical climates, more taste blending with nearby Thailand and Cambodia occurs within its dishes. Unlike North Vietnam; rice paddies, herb gardens, coconut trees, jackfruit trees, bananas and such are more prevalent, thus giving their food its own distinct tastes.
A Glimpse of Vietnamese Taste
Compared to other Asian foods, the Vietnamese taste could be considered simple. Don’t let that fool you though because as simple as it may seem, it’s never boring or bland. Their food is typically a well-balanced combination of fresh herbs, vegetables, seafood, meat and fish sauce. Taste wise, this translates into having a wonderful balance of heat, sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness. Let’s take a “glimpse” into the world of Vietnamese taste.
The cornerstone of Vietnamese taste is in its use of salt, which typically comes in the form of fermented fish sauce, or nước mắm. This is used in just about every Vietnamese dish in ways of soup broths, marinades, spring roll dips, salads and even as a standalone condiment. Simply put, Vietnamese food isn’t possible without this key ingredient.
Herbs are also key contributors to Vietnamese taste. Some of the most commonly used ones are fresh mint (there are various varieties including one that tastes like fish), lemongrass, lime leaf, lemon leaf, cilantro, ginger, galangal, perilla leaf, dill, basil (a Thai influence), Saigon cinnamon, turmeric, garlic chives, green onions and scallions.
Fruits have two main uses. The unripe fruits are treated more like vegetables. Green mangoes, papayas and even banana flowers are used as salads in lieu of leafy vegetables such as lettuce. The bitter and crunchy textures pair well with fish sauce, chili, chopped peanuts or dried fish.
The ripe fruits provide the majority of deserts. Rather than creating fancy desert recipes, fruits are typically served freshly cut into pieces just as they are. Indigenous fruits include mango, papaya, banana, rambutan, lychee, watermelon and dragon fruit.
One cannot talk about Vietnamese food without mentioning its French colonization and influence. Before 1954, the French occupied Vietnam for roughly an entire century. Their biggest influence in today’s Vietnamese foods comes in the form of pho (pronounced fuh as in fun without the “n”). Pho is a hearty hot soup consisting of slices of various beef parts and beef balls. The soup is a clear beef broth flavored with basil, lime juice, hot peppers and other seasonings.
The other French influence worth mentioning is its French baguette sandwich called Bahn Mi. The typical French sandwich, which used a meat paste (aka pâté) inside sliced baguette, was altered by the Vietnamese to appeal to their taste buds. Instead of aka pâté; grilled pork, sardines, fish, cilantro, chili-seasoned daikon and carrots are used as fillings.
Where to Find
If your mouth is watering by now, you will be happy to hear there are a good number of great Vietnamese restaurants in Chicago. There are the staple Uptown greats: Nha Hang Viet Nam, Tank Noodle Restaurant, Hai Yen, Pho 777, Pho Tau Bay, New Saigon and Viet Nam, to name a few. Yelp also provides a nice list of restaurants for other Chicago neighborhoods. If the city is inconvenient for you, many restaurants are located throughout its surrounding suburbs.
One newcomer worth mentioning is Green Basil, located in the southwest suburb of Naperville. It is a small, yet wonderful establishment offering authentic Vietnamese dishes prepared by owner and head chef, Nick Nyugen. Chef Nyugen’s twenty plus years of cooking experience has brought an exemplary taste of Vietnam to a part of Chicagoland that is known to embrace diverse ethnic tastes.
This cozy-quaint restaurant is located in busy downtown Naperville. Fortunately it is tucked away enough from the congestive noise to offer a relaxed and pleasant experience. Its wood floor and tables provide a naturalness that is nicely complemented by Vietnamese décor. Most importantly, the food is well worth the visit.
Guests can look forward to wonderful creations that are innovative, yet very Vietnamese. Appetizers such as Goi Du Du Tom Thit (shredded green papaya w/ carrot, shrimp, pork, roasted peanuts and mixed fish sauce) and Muc Rang Muoi (crispy calamari, wok tossed w/ garlic and scallions) are great dishes to start with. After tantalizing your taste buds with the appetizers, there are entrees waiting to satisfy your pallete.
Worth mentioning are the nine different Pho dishes that include the house specialty, Pho Dac Biet (noodles w/ sliced beef, brisket, flank, tripe, tendon and meatballs). If you’re in the mood for a Banh Bi dish, there are five different varieties to choose from. Some of the other great dishes include Banh Hoi Tom Thit (grilled shrimp & sliced pork with rice vermicelli, fresh basil, lettuce and cucumber) and Ca Hong Sot Chua Ngot (whole crispy red snapper w/ pineapple, tomato and house spicy sour sauce). These are just a sampling of what to look forward to at Green Basil.
One other thing to point out: While more and more Vietnamese-Asian restaurants are adapting to “fusion” taste buds by using more oils than usual, this restaurant uses more vegetables and fresh ingredients instead.
More than Food
Many Vietnamese have endured unfathomed amounts of adversity and struggles to plant new roots in America. In Chicago especially, these once tiny roots have grown to sturdy trees worth admiring. They are an impressive community, considering how little they had to begin and how short of a time span it took for them to achieve great things in the culinary and business world. Their sense of “roots” has allowed them to integrate in a manner that not only makes them great American citizens, but also great role models for other ethnicities. Hopefully through their example, others will be inspired to never lose connection to their own respective ancestry and heritage.
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