Eventually, it seems the good ethnic joints always find their way to Lincoln Park. A few years ago, fresh off the critical acclaim from PBS’s “Check, Please!” Hema’s Kitchen, the tiny but always-packed Devon Street curry joint, opened a second location at 2411 North Clark. Following in those footsteps, Argyle Street Vietnamese food darling Hai Yen has staked a new claim just up the block.
Like Hema’s on Devon, the original Hai Yen was always one of the cleaner joints on Argyle, and as such, there were often more curious white folk than ethnic Vietnamese slurping down noodles. Still, the menu was full of adventurous goodies like bible tripe, banana blossom salad and lotus root. The new storefront has made some concessions to its tonier Lincoln Park surroundings, and scaled down the menu to focus on beef and seafood familiar to American palates. A menu that was once the Vietnamese culinary equivalent to “War and Peace” is now the Cliffs Notes version.
Despite the lack of fat spongy beef meatballs or texture-rich tripe strips, the Clark Street Pho Tai Nam is soul satisfying. It’s a tasty conglomeration of hearty cuts of beef brisket, eye of round steak, rice noodles and scallions floating in a rich beef broth. Accompanied by a mini-buffet of fresh-cut sweet Asian basil, a mound of crunchy bean sprouts, a wedge of lime and dollops of spicy Sriracha (garlic chili sauce) and plummy Hoisin, you can adjust the flavor towards your particular spice and herb predilection.
Gui Cuon, or traditional Vietnamese spring rolls— steamed rice cake pancakes filled with pork, candy-cane pinwheels of thinly sliced shrimp, vermicelli noodles, basil and mint, served with a spicy peanut sauce—are crispy and refreshing, like spring in a blanket.
Thankfully my favorite dish made the trip south, and Tom Cuon Thit Nuong, or grilled beef slices marinated in lemongrass, sesame seeds and honey, wrapped around grilled shrimp, recall a summer barbecue. The smokiness of the grilled meat, the sweet dab of honey, the crispy grill char and the plump succulence of the shrimp is the perfect portable surf and turf.
Suon Bo Nuong, tender beef short ribs marinated in soy, honey, shallots and garlic are similar to Korean Bulgogi, but more tender with a simple, focused sweet flavor. Big hunks of tender rare meat lay in heaps on the plate, along with crosscut bones ringed by a tiny stretch of succulent and smoky almost-melted fat. It was so good that, after working my way through the big hunks, I went canine, and sucked the bones dry of their meager remnants.
With its wealth of flashing marquees and scrolling advertising signs, the six-way intersection of Broadway, Clark and Diversey looks like a mini-Times Square, especially when you add the throngs of shoppers and impossible parking. Hai Yen, with soft lights, twinkling red-glass votives, cherry-wood accents and beige walls, is the perfect Zen respite to this mania. Eschewing typical décor like black lacquer and Asian accents, the whole place has a warm modern vibe. Except for the narrowness of the space, you might confuse this for a new trendy haute restaurant rather than storefront ethnic joint. Hanging lights, which look like candles suspended in glinting soap-bubble globes, cast shadows on the red granite bar. A single arresting painting of a modern Vietnamese woman in contemplation is the only piece of art gracing the walls. Most peaceful of all, Near North and South Siders and Loop dwellers no longer have to make the traffic-challenged pilgrimage or long El ride to Argyle Street to sample great Vietnamese eats.
Hai Yen, 2723 North Clark, (773)868-4888.