Some believe that critics criticize because they can’t do. In my particular case, when I’ve been less than enthusiastic about certain restaurants, it’s been said I couldn’t cook my way out of a paper bag. I like to believe this isn’t true. I got into food writing through my love of cooking. I also spend a lot of time constructing restaurants in my head that I one day hope to launch. That’s why I find Amy Le—owner and chef of Spotted Monkey, a new Asian-Latin fusion restaurant in Chicago’s financial district—so inspiring.
“The Chipotle of …” is quickly becoming a ubiquitous phrase used by food entrepreneurs. What it usually means is the chefs or business people behind the venture have so many stars and dollars signs blocking their eyes in the quest to become a fast-casual sensation by serving quick versions of international foods that they forget the food actually has to taste good.
If chicken soup feeds the soul, then pho (pronounced “FUH”), the traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup, is the curative for frozen bones. Usually served with a condiment tray featuring limes, chile paste, hoisin, bean sprouts, Asian basil and culantro (a sawtooth-shaped cilantro-like herb), it’s also the ultimate tableside soup buffet. Customize to your heart’s content, but for the purpose of this article, we stayed away from the extra flavorings and focused solely on the quality of the base broth, cuts of meat and noodles. In order to ensure the most “beefiness” and to compare apples to apples, we ordered our pho at each restaurant with eye of round steak, brisket, tripe, tendon, flank steak and tendon meatballs. Excepting the pho at the Noodle (where it’s called Pho Chín, Nam, Gau, Gân, Sách) and at Tank (Pho Xe Tang), this was always the pho dac biet or “supercombo” version.
If your mother was Vietnamese, she probably made pho when you were sick. If not, there’s always Hai Yen restaurant on Argyle Street in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood serving up a feast of the senses and the seasons.