Chef Thai Dang and co-owner Danielle Dang's love letter to Vietnamese cooking showcases rich flavors and overlooked dishes. No matter how familiar you may be with Vietnamese cuisine, there's a good chance that something on HaiSous's menu will surprise you. Stick to standards like crispy wings covered in caramelized fish sauce or branch out by trying an octopus salad with eggplant confit. If you prefer a guided dining experience, order one of the tasting menus served family-style.
The following review was published in 2019.
Embeya vets Thai and Danielle Dang bring authentic Vietnamese flavors to Pilsen—and the results are stunning.
In Chicago, fusion food is arguably easier to come by than authentic ethnic cuisine. That’s not to say that cross-cultural fare is a bad idea; Kimski, Mott Street and En Hakkore are examples of top-notch spots seamlessly blending traditions. But in some ways, creating something authentic seems like the harder feat. That might explain my high hopes for HaiSous, a new restaurant in Pilsen from Embeya vets Thai and Danielle Dang. The tagline promises “a true Vietnamese kitchen preserving heritage through food,” something most Chicagoans haven’t experienced south of Montrose Avenue (aside from the smattering of pho and banh mi spots downtown).
Guests can choose from a $33 tasting or the a la carte dinner menu; my date and I went with the latter, which didn’t disappoint. Divided into five sections, the dinner menu offers “for fun” salads, drinking food, house specialties, vegetarian dishes and pickled things. Start with Dang’s papaya salad, a family recipe that’s bursting with fresh, herbaceous flavors. Shards of young papaya, culantro (a cousin to cilantro) and savory Vietnamese beef jerky dance in a puddle of mouth-smacking chili sauce. Similarly refreshing—though a touch sweeter—is the hand-shredded duck salad, with crunchy green cabbage, banana blossom, scallion oil and ginger.
En route to the “drinking food” section of the menu, we ordered a round of adult beverages, the favorite of which was the Sake Signature Cocktail, a comforting blend of Japanese rice wine, honey, Tahitian vanilla, Vietnamese 5 spice and lemon. A hint of funky fermentation lingers around long after the honey and vanilla flavors fade. It was the perfect palate cleanser for the fried chicken wings that followed. Lacquered in caramelized fish sauce and Thai chili heat, these ginormous wings are lightly fried and perfectly tender. Still, I craved a bit more sauce and a hot towel (or at least a wet wipe) for cleanup. The same note applies to the saucy Northern-style spare ribs. Served with tender quail eggs, the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender, but gobs of fat throughout made them almost inedible. Still, it was the only dish that disappointed that night.
If I can offer one piece of advice, it’s this: Don’t sleep on the vegetarian section of the menu. The Vietnamese-style curry in particular is out of this world. Generous hunks of carrot, sweet potato and radish swim in a pool of rich, lemon custard-colored curry that’s so satisfying I wanted to lick the bowl clean. I can only hope one day the Dangs decide to bottle this stuff and sell it to the masses.
For dessert, there’s just one option: assorted exotic fruit. Admittedly, the carb-loving chocoholic in me hated this, but to my surprise, it was one of the most fascinating parts of the experience. Globes of lychee, longan and spiky rambutan are served on a plate with forks and knives to go around. We cut open the hard shells to reveal jelly-like, candy-flavored fruits. Though simple, I’d argue it’s one of the more unique, daring desserts offered in Chicago right now. It’s also the plate that helped me sum up my feelings on HaiSous: In a sea of summer openings, this unabashedly authentic menu shines.
Atmosphere: Decidedly modern yet cozy, HaiSous is romantic without trying too hard—perfect for a third date.
What to eat: Start with the papaya salad and don’t forget to toss in an order of Vietnamese-style curry.
What to drink: Signature cocktails are priced right at $10 apiece and the flavor profiles are outstanding.
Where to sit: The space boasts an open kitchen and big windows fit for people watching. If you can nab a spot that affords views of both, you’ve hit the jackpot.