Saturday, October 11

Hai Yen Food Review

Hai Yen
1055 W. Argyle Street
Entrees $8-$12

My grandmother owned a Vietnamese restaurant in Noisien, twenty
minutes outside Paris, where she would cook, and where mother's
family, my aunts and uncles, would help out. I remember tasting a
Vietnamese hoagie (banh mi) that that my grandma made for my mother
and biting into a spicy pepper. My mother rushed me to a water
fountain where I gulped down water while crying. I also remember
running around the restaurant--the upstairs storage area, where boxes
of clothes, old electronics and family photographs delineated a maze
of passageways, my own little city; the serving area, where I would
climb from table to table and ask to eat customers' food; the kitchen,
where I'd watch my grandma cook, where I developed my love of food,
where once I got upset at my grandma for not paying attention to me
and threw all her pots and pans in the garbage can so she wouldn't be
able to cook anymore. If I asked persistently enough, my grandma
would make me my favorites--banh cuon (rolled rice batter crepes), cha
gio (shrimp and pork egg rolls), bun rieu (shrimp, crabmeat and
tomatoe soup with rice noodles), and most of all fried banana with ice

Growing up, my family would go out for Vietnamese food in Philadelphia
almost every week. Whenever I eat Vietnamese food, it is always
measured against these experiences. Of course, for me, nothing can
equal my mother's or my grandmother's cooking. Growing up in the US,
my identification with my Vietnamese background is not very strong,
and the food I cook tends to be much more western. So whenever I
crave the taste of home, I head down to Argyle.

Argyle is home to a wonderful and extensive grocery store, where once
a friend of mine cooked a bountiful meal for four from twenty dollars
worth of groceries, as well as to many restaurants, most of them
family affairs, like my grandmother's. Among the many Vietnamese
restaurants in the area, Hai Yen stands out. The service is slow,
especially when they're busy, but it's worth the hassle.

Goi is a type of Vietnamese salad, usually made from papaya or
cabbage, which contains shredded carrots, onions, pork, shrimp, and is
dressed in lime, fish sauce and a touch of vinegar. At Hai Yen, they
also serve goi made from lotus root and banana blossom, both of which
are unusual and truly special. I also tried the banh beo, banh bot
loc, banh nam, all made from steamed rice batter with shrimp or pork
inside. They are Vietnamese street food, often sold wrapped in banana
leaves, which act as a preservative. Chao tom, shrimp wrapped around
sugar cane, was wonderfully meaty and sweet, another great appetizer.

For main courses, I tried the ga xao sa ot, spicy chicken with lemon
grass, a classic Vietnamese dish. The sauce was a bit sweet, and
maybe not spicy enough. I was surprised that the tom rang moi, salted
fried shrimp, was breaded, but the dish worked well, crispy, with just
the right amount of pepper.

The best place to get Vietnamese food in the US is still in
California, where areas with a dense Vietnamese population, for
example Garden Grove or Santa Ana, serve food that's almost the equal
of what you would get in Vietnam. Philadelphia and Houston also have
their highlights, but Chicago puts in a strong showing with its
offerings on Argyle street.