When I got back from Indonesia last month, I developed a scary addiction to rice and was craving the starch every moment of every day. I'd wake up from a deep slumber salivating about nasi campur
(rice with mixed veggies and meat), and I'd go to bed dreaming about rice with sweet long beans and tempeh. My fixation, though, was taken to a whole-new, more-dramatic level when I stopped into Tank Noodle (Pho Xe Tang)
on one cold, sunless afternoon. Why, oh why, have I never gone to Tank before? I've always heard great things about it; it's in my neighborhood, and I love Vietnamese food, especially from restaurants that call themselves noodle houses.
The place was packed when I scurried in out of the cold. That's always a good sign. And my waiter was all buttered up with excitement since it was my first time in. Another good sign. I loathe when a waiter can't make simple suggestions without pure excitement, and this fella did not disappoint. He ran through the extensive menu like a champ, suggesting dishes that might work for my on-and-off vegetarian palate. After deciding on the curry tofu noodle bowl (bun ca ri tau hu), I rubbernecked the dining room, watching groups of Asians and Americans literally beam with joy while digging into their plates of food. Huge bowls of soup were being slurped down; giant platters of beef came out sizzling; and I was in a pure-white heaven staring at all the steaming bowls of sticky rice being doled out.
When the food runner weaved his way around the tables full of babbling diners, I fixed a deadly, God-like stare on him. He wielded a half-soccer-ball-size bowl of soup, a plate brimming with vibrant greens, fresh lime and crunchy bean sprouts, and, of course, a fat bowl of white rice. He expertly slid it all onto my table and took off. As I sat and breathed in the full aroma, I collaborated with the rice. A plan was in order and bites had to be created from scratch.
First a dressing of the whole bowl. I dotted the top of the sweet coconut curry soup with tears of mint and basil, as well as a couple of shakes of bean sprouts. Shredded cabbage went on next, and then whole shebang was doused in lime juice. You can't just stop there, though. Eating a dish like this is no simple task for someone like me; actual spoonfuls had to be concocted, and since the bottom of the bowl housed a nest of soft rice noodles, I used the chopsticks to wind-up great, healthy twirls. So, I first would use the spoon to grab a litter of rice and then gently scoop up a generous load of broth brimming with tofu, onions and potatoes (could have been yucca), making sure to pepper each bite with all the toppings. Then, I'd tuck a bit of the noodles onto the very top of the spoon and slip the whole thing into my mouth.
I was blown away with every bite. There is nothing in the world that compares to the intricacies and flavors of Vietnamese food (except for Indonesian food). I managed to work my way through half the dish before requesting a to-go box. The same meal for dinner? You better believe it.
The next day I was back at 9 am. I know it sounds odd to have Viet food for breakfast, but I had to get another bowl of that curry. These guys open up early all week (except, as I soon found out one devastating afternoon, they are closed on Wednesday), and you wouldn't believe the people who pile through the front door as soon as the locks are turned and the open sign lights up. I guess Tank isn't really a secret. No, it's just a secret for those who don't listen to the raves. Shame.
The Final Rave: I went back four times in one week at all hours of the day, and each time I had the curry tofu bowl. It was consistent every time, and, even as I write this from Mexico, I am dreaming about it. Go now.
Do it: Argyle Street at Sheridan
Little Vietnam is the most unexplored foodie haven in Chicago. I've eaten at almost every restaurant in that 'hood and never once had a bad dish. Pretty amazing.
Make it: Viet World Kitchen
This site has loads of good recipes that seem quite simple to make.
Read it: Noodlepie.com
This is seriously one of the best food blogs I've ever stumbled across. Gorgeous photos and great adventures with Vietnamese food in the Motherland. Make sure to dig through the archives for the best posts.
Get crazy with it: Responsible Travel
This green tour company is totally roots-centered, and takes guests way off the beaten path. Plus, its Vietnam prices are half what a similar tour might cost.