photo: courtesy of Rebecca Wheeler
There I was, perched against a building on the corner of Broadway and Argyle, nervously chain-smoking Camels. Any moment now, I'd have to enter Thai Grocery across the street. I tried making Thai food exactly once; it was a disaster. You see, no one told me that it was more complicated than dumping a jar of Morton & Bassett curry powder into a stir-fry. Now I had to go inside this tiny grocer and pretend to be the type of person who wouldn't dump a jar of curry powder into a stir-fry.
I was waiting for Rebecca Wheeler—who is most certainly the kind of person who makes a proper curry—to give me a personal tour of Argyle Street. Venturing into a teeny bodega, nosing through unfamiliar ingredients and emerging with anything short of a panic attack is something I've never been able to do. I'm the kind who needs a friendly push—and, evidently, a recipe or two.
When I heard someone ask, "Are you Tighe?" from behind me, I nearly jumped out of my skin. I turned around to see the smiling face of someone who was obviously too young to be the well-credentialed chef who's traveled the world, worked under Grant Achatz and learned pasta-craft from an Umbrian grandma.
"Hi, I'm Becca."
At first I panicked. I realized that surely we'd be entering Thai Grocery now, I'd hyperventilate in the aisles, and this article would never get written. She talked me through what we'd be doing, and then told me about the Chinatown entrepreneur who, during the 1970s, bought up most of this neighborhood and offered financial support to help Chinese merchants relocate from the recently razed Old Chinatown. Soon after, the end to America's military involvement in Southeast Asia led to a huge influx of immigrants over the next two decades. By the time she finished telling me about how most of the businesses were now owned by Thai and Vietnamese merchants, we were walking through the door of the grocery. She'd cured my anxieties already.
The first aisle was filled with Thai pantry staples of coconut milk, fish oil and chili paste. "Hot. Sour. Salty. Sweet. That balance of flavors is so important," she explained, adding that once that concept was down, you could begin experimenting with the elements to find your own dishes.
We entered the back of the store, and she lead me to a full-service carry-out lunch counter. The women behind the counter gave Wheeler a big greeting and offered us some fried bananas. My eyes landed on mango sticky rice, my favorite.
"I've tried to make this before—it just doesn't work," I told Becca. She swept me to the front of the store, explained which kind of rice to use (apparently not Uncle Ben's), and pointed out the cauldron-like vat that was custom-made for sticky rice and the conical steaming basket that went inside it. It was in that moment when I realized I was learning something; since we'd entered the store, the whole excursion was like shopping with a very worldly friend. I did some quick accounting in my head, realizing the bulk of information she'd bestowed upon me already—and we'd only been at it for half an hour.
Perhaps sensing my desperation for a hearty banh mi, Wheeler led me next door to Ba Le French Bakery & Restaurant, where we secured a couple BBQ pork sandwiches and iced coffees. My trusty guide explained that Vietnamese coffee was incredibly strong, and that it's actually made with New Orleans' Cafe Du Monde brand chicory coffee.
"Is that like a French colony camaraderie thing," I asked with a mouthful of baguette. Then I remembered that she had been to Vietnam, so I asked her if they ate like this over there. "Snout to tail eating—they don't waste a thing," she said. "I remember asking my tour guide, 'Is there any part of the chicken the Vietnamese don't eat?' He thought for a second and said, 'feathers.' There's this true appreciation for the cycle of life. We've become really removed from that in America."
As we emerged from Ba Le, she pointed out how easy it was to incorporate the cuisine of Argyle Street into your weekly routine: grab a roasted duck at Sun Wah Bar-B-Q Restaurant instead of a rotisserie from the grocery store; stop by Thai Pastry & Restaurant for exotic ice cream flavors and sweets; dive into some pho at Tank Noodle (Pho Xe Tang). It was clear that she knew every storefront intimately as she mentioned how long each had been in the neighborhood, how many generations worked in the kitchen, and what her two-year-old orders.
As we arrived at La Patisserie P, she explained that the owner, Paul Yuen, had left for Paris that morning for the World Cup of Baking. We ordered up one of his famous croissants, a coconut cake and a boxful of other goodies. Subsidizing our carb-fest with a little food politics, the conversation veered toward local food.
"The breakthrough for me is when I realized that brand loyalty was a load of crap," Wheeler offered. "There's a great intuition about the right way to eat. Geography is the number one influencing factor for Southeast Asia. People eat what the land produces." I realized that here was a chance to pick the brain of a devoted food lover, so I urged her on. "We're still a consumer-driven culture, but Eastern practices are being validated. The tide is turning; people are finally waking up to the compromises we've made."
Before parting ways, she took me to the Roots of Argyle Mural, explaining that the recently finished painting told the entire history of the neighborhood. As I walked back to the L with a box full of pastry and a head full of new information, I thought about the mission statement Wheeler had laid out for me when we met a few hours earlier.
"It's about excitement, the thrill of discovery and taking out the intimidation factor," she said. "I love that I can give people access to these little gems."
Indeed, I'd morphed from a frazzled mess to an Argyle Street scholar over the course of an afternoon. And I didn't even take the full tour. It's not surprising that Wheeler—who convinced her favorite Thai chef to take her on as a protegee, who went to Paris to chase down the best pastry education, and who convinced an Italian grandma to dish family secrets—was paying it forward.
Guidebook rating: An essential outing for any self-respecting foodie, cook, travel-fiend or Chicago resident, Rebecca Wheeler's Ethnic Market Tours provide a comprehensive, intimate and informative introduction to some of the North Side's culinary treasures.
Stats: Ethnic Market Tours are available for the Southeast Asian flavors of the Argyle area, the Indian cuisine of the Devon area and a "Best of the Northside" survey that encompasses portions of both tours. Tours cost $100 per person. Prices include a three-to-four hour tour, tastings and a light lunch. For more information and to book a tour, visit rebeccawheeler.com.