During our Asian cultural and culinary tour in Chicago last fall, our guide, Judith Dunbar Hines from Walk Chicago Tours took us to an authentic Vietnamese restaurant. (Click here to read about the tour.) Now, my wife and I had never had Vietnamese food before and one of the reasons we wanted to take the tour with her was to learn more about Southeast Asian cuisine. With a number of Vietnamese restaurants up and down Argyle Street, she picked Uptown Pho for our first foray into Vietnamese food, primarily because it's so well known for their diverse menu.
Uptown Pho is located at 1010 W. Argyle, near Lake Michigan and between Foster Ave. and Lawrence Ave. (see map) There was a lot of construction going on up and down Argyle when we were there and the only way into the restaurant was a makeshift gangplank to get into the building.
Uptown Pho is not very big, but it had sort of an elegant and cozy feeling to the place. There was a small bar in the back corner and a number of four-seater tables throughout the place. Even though there were five of us for lunch, we took a large eight-seater in the middle of the restaurant, mainly because we were going to be sharing food family-style.
The first thing we learned was the correct pronunciation of "pho". The Vietnamese pronunciation is "fuh", but it's been sort of Americanized to the phonetic "foe", which is also acceptable in some Vietnamese circles. Even our friends Jay and Pam, who went on the tour with us and are very much familiar with Southeast Asian cuisine, pronounced it "foe".
We were at the mercy of Judith to order for us. She sets up the menu in advance with the restaurant depending upon how many people she has on the tour. We ordered up drinks and I really didn't know what to get. Someone ordered some bubble tea that was available in different flavors, another ordered some Da Chanh - fresh squeezed lemonade. I almost went with that until Cindy saw that they had a drink called Ca Phe Sua Da - a Vietnamese iced-espresso served with condensed milk. I got one of those. I'm telling you, it was so packed with caffeine and sugar that I was crawling out of my skin up to an hour after I had the last drink.
They began to bring out food once we sat down. The first thing they sat down on the table was a Banh Mi Thit Nuong - basically a Vietnamese sandwich with a seasoned grilled pork and fresh greens on a baguette. Judith held up a cut of the sandwich for me to take a cross-section picture of it. The bread was fresh with a crunchy outer shell, but moist and chewy inside. The seasoned pork had a bit of spiciness to it and was great on the bread.
Because Vietnam was under French rule until 1954, many Vietnamese foods have a decidedly French influence. That's why they have baguette breads and something else that was rather interesting - something called Banh Xeo, or Vietnamese crepes.
They're basically made from rice flour and water with turmeric powder, sizzling and popping when the batter is poured onto a hot griddle. The term Banh Xeo literally means "sizzling cake" in Vietnamese. The Banh Xeo is then stuffed with pork or shrimp along with diced green onions and bean sprouts. We had the shrimp Banh Xeo and it was very good. Even Jay, who thought he'd had a firm grasp on many Vietnamese foods, was not familiar with Banh Xeo and he thought it was killer. He added Hoisin and Sriracha sauce to the Banh Xeo to give it more of a flavorful boost, not that it really needed it in the first place.
Another item that was on the table was the Lotus Stem Salad or Goi Ngo Sen. Judith had shown us lotus stems at the Thai grocery store we had gone to earlier in the day and told us to remember that because we'd be having some later in the day. It's made with daikon - which is basically a long white radish-type root vegetable - and pickled carrots. Shrimp and/or pork is added to the salad. We just had shrimp in the salad.
Once we got those items out of the way, our server brought us out a huge bowl of pho. This was Pho Tai Bo Vien - rice noodles with meatballs and sliced eye round steak. Now, this is what I've been wanting to try, but didn't know anything about it, let alone how to order it.
Jay was very familiar with pho and he showed me that by putting a couple drops of Sriracha and some hoisin sauce in with the pho really gave it a wonderful overall flavor. By the end of the day, I was wondering why on earth I'd never even thought about putting hoisin sauce on ANY type of Asian food. Hell, I seriously considered getting some to try on just regular ol' steak that I cook on the grill.
We weren't quite done at Uptown Pho, although I was pretty stuffed. Judith whipped out a box full of Asian pastries that she had bought down the street at the Chiu Quon Bakery just before we went to Uptown Pho. I tried a bite of a couple of things, but I was so full from what we had just eaten that I wasn't really able to enjoy anything that she brought in. We've been on two cultural and culinary tours with Judith (we're going to do another one focusing on Indian foods next spring) and the one thing that you won't do on one of her tours is go away hungry. She's acknowledged to us since then that maybe she feeds people too much food. No, Jude! Make your people walk away so stuffed that they'll remember the whole experience!
For our first experience at a Vietnamese restaurant, I don't think we could have gone wrong with the food and experience at Uptown Pho. We've since been to a couple Vietnamese restaurant fully knowing what to order and feeling confident as to what we like. From the crepes to the banh mi sandwich and ending up with the steak and meatball pho, the food at Uptown Pho was a great education for a couple of Vietnamese food novices. Thankfully we had a guide to help us through the maze of foods that were completely unknown to us. But I'm sure the staff at Uptown Pho would help you navigate your way through their diverse menu if you stop in.