Foodies know Dan Nguyen as the chef who ran the upscale restaurant Pasteur with his brother, Tuan, then closed that in 2007 to open Viet Bistro (1346 W Devon Ave, 773-465-5720) with his wife, Kim. But few may realize Nguyen made a living on oil rigs before moving on to cooking oil. After studying petroleum engineering in college, Nguyen worked on an off-shore operation near Louisiana.
Eventually Nguyen’s mother asked him to help his brother in the restaurant business in Chicago, so in 1986 he braved the cold and came north. Here, at least, he can find the tropical flavors of hot Saigon, where he was born and lived until the fall of the city in 1975.
“I need this for my restaurant,” Nguyen says as he digs through the lemongrass, a tropical herb, at Tai Nam Food Market(4925 N Broadway, 773-275-5666). He chooses fat stalks: Nguyen grinds the pale bottom of the lemongrass in a food processor and stir-fries it with meat. He chops the tough, narrow stems and simmers them in soup. “It’s very versatile,” he says of the lemongrass, gesturing with a handful of stalks. Tai Nam is one of his favorite places for produce. “They have a lot of stuff to offer their customers fresh,” Nguyen says. While Nguyen shops for bulk items for Viet Bistro at a restaurant-supply center, he comes to Tai Nam to pick up small quantities of whatever he’s run out of. It’s inexpensive and, perhaps just as important to him, the market offers parking.
Mien Hoa Market(1108 W Argyle St, 773-334-8393) is another solid choice, Nguyen says. Here, he can find galangal, which is similar to ginger root. He might also pick up some bok choy, kaffir lime leaves or tamarind.
On the opposite side of the street, the brownish-orange color of the roast duck hanging in the window of Sun Wah Vietnamese BBQ(1134 W Argyle St, 773-769-1254) suggests the restaurant doesn’t use much red dye in its hoisin sauce, Nguyen says. Even better, “the taste is just like back home.” Nguyen likes to pop in, place his roast-duck order to go, then wait outside until it’s chopped and ready; otherwise, he says, you end up smelling like duck.
Nguyen cooks all day, so he lets someone else do the work on his day off. One of his favorite restaurants is Dong Kinh Pho(1129 W Argyle St, 773-271-2199). “I normally order something that I’m too lazy to cook at my place,” Nguyen says. “They offer really, really authentic food.” He might be a bit biased—the restaurant is run by one of his former staffers. Rashed Islam, Nguyen’s front-of-house manager and sommelier at Viet Bistro, joins him for lunch, noting the jicama in the spring rolls is cut to just the right thickness. Nguyen chooses the seafood rice stick noodles soup, No. 49. It’s served with bean sprouts, basil leaves, hot peppers and a wedge of lime so you can season the soup to taste. And no meal is complete without a glass of iced coffee, made with chicory and richly sweetened with condensed milk.
If he wants something simple, Nguyen might slip next door to the Chiu Quon Bakery(1127 W Argyle St, 773-907-8888). Glass cases hold all kinds of temptations: steamed buns with barbecued pork or cabbage and a bean-paste cake for dessert. There’s seating, but Nguyen often gets his treats to go.
He can find even more tempting take-out items at Ba Le(5018 N Broadway, 773-561-4424), the closest thing to a deli on this stretch of Argyle. Chicken, meatball or pork-skin sandwiches (banh mi) on baguettes are topped with daikon, grated carrots and cilantro or mint. Islam also likes the Bach Cuc–brand prepackaged curry beef jerky the deli stocks, which is marinated in five spices, making it soft and crumbly rather than chewy.
Nguyen points out the Vietnamese spiced pâtés and sausages in the cooler: “This is how [the Vietnamese] took the French concept of sausage and made it their own,” he says. Nguyen also recommends the che ba, three-bean drinks from the cooler, sweetened with coconut milk. If you’re drinking it on the spot, the people behind the counter will add shaved ice. When you can get a concoction like this, why would you ever order another plain iced latte?
Tai Nam Food Market
Mien Hoa Market
Galangal (frozen), $5.50/lb
Sun Wah Vietnamese BBQ
Roast duck, $7.25 medium; $13.50 large
Dong Kinh Pho
Spring rolls, $3; Seafood rice stick noodles soup, $7.50; Iced coffee, $3
Chiu Quon Bakery
Steamed buns (pork or cabbage), 95¢ each; Bean-paste cake, 95¢ each
Banh mi sandwich, $2.95–$3.25; Bach Cuc beef jerky, $17.50/lb; Che ba bean drink, $2.95