Not long ago, my wife and I joined a friend of hers and her husband from Indianapolis in Chicago for a weekend. The main goal was to take a culinary and cultural walking tour in the Argyle/North Broadway area in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. This area is a veritable melting pot of SE Asian and Chinese culture and cuisine. My wife and I are not well-versed in Vietnamese food, but her friend and her husband were. But they actually learned some things during the tour that they didn't know about some Asian foods. It was a beautiful Fall Saturday when we did the tour in Chicago.
We contracted the tour through Walk Chicago Tours, the same tour company that my wife and I took for the Pilsen tour of Mexican cuisine, culture and architecture last April. (Click here to read about that tour.) Our host was once again the lovely and sassy Judith Dunbar Hines, pictured here from our tour in April. We took the CTA Red Line train to the Argyle stop and met Judith about a block away at the corner of Argyle and Broadway. (See map) We were all a little early for our 10:30 a.m. appointment, but that didn't matter. Judith was there waiting for us and we started on the tour earlier than planned.
Judith told us the story of neighborhood with a decidedly non-Asian name of Argyle came to be the epicenter for Southeast Asian food and culture in Chicago. The area was initially developed in the mid-1880's as a Chicago suburb. Developer and Chicago Alderman James Campbell named the area for Scottish ancestors, the Dukes of Argyll. The small village was annexed into Chicago in 1889.
Southwest of the Chicago Loop, Chinese immigrants set up their own neighborhood of commerce in the early 1900's. This neighborhood grew over the years under the watchful eyes of two organizations the Hip Song and On Leong associations, or "tongs". Both organizations were competing with one another to help business people in the neighborhood and tensions came to a head in the 1960's. That's when restaurateur Jimmy Wong, president of Hip Song Tong, decided to start looking for a "new" Chinatown.
When an area of Chinatown was selected to be the new home of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in the early 70's, Wong and his associates knew they'd have to move many of their businesses. While the On Leong Tong settled on an area that is the present day Chinatown south of downtown, Wong and Hip Song Tong bought up a good portion of a rundown neighborhood in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood centered primarily between Sheridan Road and N. Broadway. Its close proximity to public transit was one of the big reasons for the move.
Wong and Hip Song Tong provided financial assistance to Chinese-Americans looking to start businesses along Argyle St. Not only did many Chinese businesses from around the city relocate to Argyle, but the group also persuaded a number of Chinese businessmen from around the nation to open branch stores in the neighborhood.
Wong, who was sort of a local celebrity hobnobbing with movie stars and musicians at his eponymous restaurant, envisioned an area along Argyle Street with large pagodas, reflecting ponds and trees to beautify the run down area. However, Wong broke both of his hips in 1974 and he had to retire, backing away from his dreams of development along Argyle. The area languished in disrepair for five years. That's when Charlie Soo entered the picture in 1979.
Charlie Soo was the president of the Asian American Small Business Association and he took up Jimmy Wong's cause to make the Argyle neighborhood the "new" Chinatown. Soo lobbied Chicago officials to fix the sidewalks and help with restorations of building fronts. Soo also got the Chicago Transit Authority to have the Argyle "L" stop on the Red Line renovated and updated. In 1981, Soo threw the first "Taste of Argyle" festival along Argyle St.
As the Chinatown area centered at the corner of Wentworth and Cermak, Argyle became more of a Southeast Asian enclave with Thai, Laotian, Cambodian and predominantly Vietnamese immigrants settling in the neighborhood. However, as Judith told us during her little talk of the history of the Argyle neighborhood, less than 40% of the population of the neighborhood is now of Asian descent. "Kind of surprising," she told us. "But it shows how the neighborhood has changed in diversity over the past number of years."
Then Judith said, "OK, it's time for breakfast!"
This is the kind of place where they have the barbecued ducks hanging in the window. Our "breakfast" consisted of roasted duck slices in a Chinese bun with pickled vegetables and a bowl of seafood congee, a customary Chinese breakfast where the leftovers from the meal from the evening before - usually rice and whatever main dish (chicken, pork, seafood, etc.) - then it's all mixed together with a cream broth. I'm going to do a separate entry on Sun Wah BBQ at a later date.
From there, Judith took us to Tai Nam Food Market, an Asian grocery store that primarily caters to Thai cuisine. (see map) Before we went in, Judith had us pick from a number of paper tabs she pulled out of her purse. We were going on a scavenger hunt in the store. I picked palm sugar - a Thai sugar that is used not only in sweets, but in curries and sauces; Cindy got rice paper - primarily used for Vietnamese spring rolls; her friend Pam got Thai basil - which we found out has square stalks; and Pam's husband Jay picked tamarind paste which is used in a myriad of cuisines from Thai to Indian to Jamaican to Mexican foods. It's also an important part of Worcestershire sauce. However, it wasn't going to be a free-for-all scavenger hunt - Judith was going to sort of guide us to the areas we needed to look.
The Tai Nam market has been open since 1993 and is one of the leading places in the Chicago area to get Asian foods. They feature over 10,000 items and is a full service grocery store with a meat department, seafood department, fresh produce, kitchen utensils and cookware, and locally made tofu. (According to Judith, one of the best tofu manufacturers in the U.S. is located up the street on N. Broadway - Phoenix Bean - an artisan tofu factory owned by former United Airlines financial executive Jenny Yang.)
Tai Nam is also a wholesaler to restaurants. They had large sacks of dried mushrooms, peppers, peanuts and garlic. I found a 40 lb. bag of cashews for $139. Wow!
They had a little bit of everything in the wholesale foods department. Judith said that most of the restaurants in the area - and around Chicago - use Tai Nam for the basics of ethnic Asian foods. But the rest of the market was designed for a person to make an authentic Asian meal at home.
The meat department was a beehive of activity. Judith told us that the butcher shop at Tai Nam was one of the best in all the Asian markets in Chicago. "Not all of them are as clean as this one," she explained to us. "I have no problem buying meat here because they're much more conscious about cleanliness here than at other places."
As we were walking away from the meat department, Cindy turned to Judith and said, "Were those containers full of duck blood?" She said that they were. I missed them and asked Cindy where she saw them. She told me to go back to the cooler opposite the meat case. Judith told us that duck blood soup with vermicelli is a delicacy in parts of China. The Vietnamese also have a soup called Tiet Canh Vit that is a Northern Vietnam variation of duck blood soup. Nope - not anything I'd like to try, thank you.
The seafood department at Tai Nam was better than some regular seafood shops I've been to in the past. They had live lobsters and crabs in tanks toward the back of the store. The crabs looked great and if we hadn't been traveling without a cooler (and staying that night in Chicago) I would have though hard about grabbing a couple to take home to steam.
They had a long row of whole fish on ice - well over two dozen different varieties of fresh fish. I was sort of amazed to see the fish displayed this way, but Judith said that it was nothing for Asians to take home a whole fish and use most of it in different types of dishes.
The fresh produce aisle showed us a number of fruits - whole and cut - that were completely foreign to me. We were greeted at the front of the store by a huge display of whole jackfruit with cut up jackfruit available in the produce section. Interestingly, the produce didn't have much signage signifying what it was. The produce aisle was also the place where Pam found her Thai basil. Judith pointed out that a lot of Asian greens can look alike, but you need to look at the stalks to figure out what is what. She pointed out the square stalks on the Thai basil to show the difference. The things you learn in an Asian grocery store.
We were toward the back corner of the store looking at a number of kitchen utensils and cookware used in Asian homes. As we were looking at a clay pot used for cooking outdoors, a guy and his wife walked by us. He was Caucasian and she was Asian. He asked, "Are you guys learning about Thai food?" When we told him that we were, he said, "That's cool. My wife had to teach me when we first got together and now that's about all we eat."
His wife was showing us the techniques people use to cook food outdoors in the clay pots. "The clay pots cook everything evenly," she said.
Judith looked at her watch after a bit and said, "Oh, goodness! We've spent a lot of time in here! We have another stop before we go for lunch!"
Our next stop was a Thai bakery on Argyle Street - Chiu Quon Bakery. (see map) I noticed some baked goods from Chiu Quon Bakery on the shelves at the Tai Nam Market. Chiu Quon Bakery first opened over 25 years ago in Chinatown and opened a second location on Argyle about 15 years ago.
The bakery, at first glance - looked like any other bakery in Chicago. But a closer look saw that it was not your normal American bakery. Baked goods such as Lotus Bean Paste Moon Cakes, Duck Egg Cake, and Sesame Cake Balls with Bean Paste were prominent in the case.
What caught my eye were racks of baked buns with food baked into them. Jay and I were both salivating over some of the offerings which included a ham and egg baked into the buns, along with hot dogs or Chinese sausage baked into the buns. (Judith's description of Chinese sausage almost made me get one of those buns. If we weren't going for lunch in a little bit, I would have done it.) They also had a number of steamed buns with fillings such as pork and shrimp, barbecue pork, or sausage, egg and pork in a refrigerator for take home meals. The thing about all these baked food buns - they were a buck each. What a great deal!
Chiu Quon also had a few small tables for people to eat in the bakery. On one of the tables in the back, one of the bakers had just set down two large trays of what looked like angel food cake in clay pots. But Judith explained they were a type of bun, but fluffy in consistency. I believe they also had food baked in with them, as well.
Judith picked up a number of items for dessert after our meal and we took off down Argyle again. Along the way she pointed out a number of murals on the walls of buildings, similar to the murals we saw when we did our walk through the Pilsen neighborhood. Judith said that like the Mexican residents in Pilsen, Southeast Asians are also prolific when it comes to painting murals depicting historical events or ones that tell a story.
The mural below left is named "The Roots of Argyle" depicting 100 years of Argyle Street starting from 1900 and starting out looking through the door of the old Essanay Studio that was housed on Argyle Street in the early 20th Century. The studio was famous in its day for the silent movies it made with stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Gloria Swanson and Tom Mix. There are six different portals in the mural depicting immigrants coming to America - six generations in total.
The mural above right memorializes local hip-hop artist and poet John "Vietnam" Nguyen who tragically died in a drowning accident on a Wisconsin lake in 2012. He helped save a friend from drowning while he was a student at the University of Wisconsin, but died in doing so. To honor Nguyen, the City of Chicago named the 5000 block of N. Winthrop Ave. after him, the first Vietnamese-American so honored.
Argyle Street was undergoing some major renovations with sidewalks and sewer lines being installed. We ended up criss-crossing the street to avoid construction and ended up at a place Judith picked out because we told her we didn't know much - if any - about Vietnamese food when we went on our previous walking tour with her in the Spring. We ended up having lunch at a place called Uptown Pho. (see map)
Uptown Pho (pronounced "fuh" - we learned - although "foe" is also acceptable) is one of the more popular places along Argyle for Vietnamese food. Judith told us that she had other options to take us to, but she felt that for our first true Vietnamese meal that Uptown Pho would be the best because of the diversity of foods on their menu.
She had arranged with the owners beforehand with a set menu of foods to try including Beef Pho, Banh Xeo (a Vietnamese crepe - the French held Vietnam until 1954 and there's a lot of French influence in Vietnamese food), Banh Mi - a grilled pork sandwich, and a lotus stem salad. Now, Jay and Pam thought they were pretty well-versed when it came to Vietnamese food. But even Jay was stumped with some of the foods that Judith had ordered. He's had Pho before, but the Banh Xeo and the Goi Ngo Sen - the lotus salad - surprised him. He taught me that a dash of Sriracha and Hoisin sauce made the Pho jump to life.
(I'm going to do an in-depth entry on Uptown Pho at a later date. Let me just say that the Vietnamese coffee - thick and sweet - almost sent me out of my skin!)
After the desserts from the bakery, we were over with our tour of the Argyle neighborhood. Once again, Judith taught us so much about an area of Chicago that we weren't familiar with, but the double treat was that she turned us on to many great foods that we had no idea existed. We're going to do another tour with Judith next Spring - it will probably be the tour that she does that centers on an Indian neighborhood and restaurants on the far north side. Even though we like Indian food and have grown to know it pretty well, she said that an in-depth look at some of the Indian foods along Devon Ave. would broaden our horizons even more. And that's what we're looking for - broadening our culinary horizons.