A little more than two months ago I suggested in a blog post that the recent opening of a Lawrence Avenue storefront restaurant called L.D. Pho might signal a demographic swing toward the Vietnamese taking place on the far-west end of Lincoln Square. What I didn't realize was that for three years prior a Vietnamese restaurant had already existed in the same space, a place I'd passed hundreds of times but dismissed because its name—New Asia—suggested the sort of pan-Asian dilettantism that makes the eyes glaze over.
Within days of that post, New Asia reopened on the very next block, serving, I was to discover, the same all-Vietnamese menu that had been filling the little tables at the old spot with a mostly Vietnamese clientele. There's the familiar lineup of pho and rice plates, shaking beef and caramelized catfish. But scattered across the menu is a plethora of rarer and more interesting offerings—oxtail pho, goat hot pot, stir-fried snails with lemongrass, even bear meat and alligator (or "alagader").
It wasn't until I'd visited a few times that I learned most of these customers were coming for one thing—chicken. Or more precisely, chicken noodle soup. Stop in at lunch or dinner and you'll invariably find the tables crowded with folks huddled over deep, wide, steaming ceramic bowls of pho ga, the less-celebrated fowl-based cousin to the familiar aromatic beef soups bulked up with rice noodles and various bovine bits.
And it isn't just any old chicken, either. "The Vietnamese like farm-raised chicken," says Victoria Nguyen, a Wicker Park real estate broker and past owner of Vietnamese restaurants on Argyle Street and in Carol Stream. Nguyen, a regular at New Asia, translated an interview between me and New Asia owner Tiffany Nguyen (no relation), who with her older brother, Nam, opened the original restaurant just steps away from Aden Live Poultry. That's a halal butcher shop that affords its customers the opportunity to pick out their own live ducks, rabbits, pigeons, hens, roosters, and young chickens and have them killed and cleaned on the spot.
New Asia goes through about 30 chickens every day, but when it opened for business Tiffany Nguyen wasn't necessarily looking for meat slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law. The butcher shop was convenient, and the siblings were aiming to do something that set them apart. True, the birds sold at Aden aren't free-range farm chickens ("They're pretty free, though," an employee told me hopefully). But they're about as fresh as you can get, and the unusual taste and texture of their meat—starkly different from that of the usual battery bird—is undeniably a hit in the Vietnamese community.
The typical bowl of New Asia's pho ga features a clean but intensely chickeny broth seasoned with a lighter dose of heady cinnamon and five spice than you find in the standard bowl of beef pho. It's filled with herbs and rice noodles—almost too many noodles—and lots of bone-in chicken parts. The meat's juicy but chewy, almost tough—not unpleasantly so, however. It's a texture that could be attributed to the fact that the chickens spend at least part of their lives walking around, or that they're older than the average bird, or that Nam Nguyen is cooking them before rigor mortis passes. Maybe all three.
Whatever the chicken's secret, it's rare that you won't see a bowl of this marvelous soup on every table at New Asia—and likewise, the goi ga, a towering salad of both bone-in and shredded chicken, chopped cabbage, and raw onion, all topped with a sprinkling of crushed peanuts and a crown of livers and gizzards. Innards often turn up in the pho ga too, as well as on platters of steamed chicken with ginger (sort of the Vietnamese version of Hainanese chicken), which may also feature a few cooked immature or embryonic eggs—whole yolks that hadn't formed their protective albumen and shell before the bird was slaughtered.
But chicken isn't the only thing that Nam Nguyen cooks well. His beef-based pho is also good—particularly the oxtail pho, as intensely beefy as the pho ga is chickeny and similarly restrained in its spicing. There's a stir-fry of beef and mustard greens with such a spot-on balance of sweet, sour, and meaty flavors that I found myself mixing the leftovers in with one of his rice-noodle stir-fries, whose light, smoky breath-of-the-wok char makes the two a natural combination. A rabbit stir-fry, with leporids also sourced from Aden, features ribbony tofu skins in a thick, savory, almost gravylike sauce, the latter a reward for the effort it takes to extract meat from the tiny bones. The familiar ca kho to, catfish cooked in a clay pot, is distinctive too—more peppery and less sweet than other versions around town—and a salad of rare beef matches the goi ga in composition and generosity, the pink shreds of meat as tender as the signature chicken is chewy.
Before Nam Nguyen opened his own place he cooked at the then well-known, now long-gone Argyle Street restaurant Anh Linh, which specialized in certain dishes meant to . . . let's say, enhance male vitality—game meats like kangaroo, bear, venison, and boar. He's offering a few of those, like a giant, roiling hot pot with chunks of taro root and bone-in goat bobbing in a broth whose ever increasing intensity is tempered by herbaceous chrysanthemum greens. There's bear on the menu too; Tiffany Nguyen gets that from Florida (though, oddly, each time I've asked she's been out of alligator). Her brother stir-fries the beefy ursine bits with pure diced fat and serves the result with large, black-sesame-studded rice crackers. You and your bros are meant to leisurely sit around and nibble while drinking beer and, presumably, waiting for the effects to kick in.
Speaking of beer, New Asia is BYO, and if you do, you'll likely be asked if you want your brew iced, a practical and refreshing necessity in steamy Vietnam, where refrigeration isn't ubiquitous. Here, with the appropriate cheap lager, the open-minded will find it deliciously sacrilegious. Barring that, the glasses of pale-green, mildly flavored tea that everybody drinks are just as refreshing. It's brewed from pandanus, a tropical leaf that smells and tastes of jasmine.
Tiffany and Nam Nguyen moved to their current location after their Vietnamese landlord didn't renew their lease. Very soon after that, L.D. Pho opened in the same spot. Even more recently, Cafe Huong, a onetime billiard hall just two doors away from their new place, morphed into a restaurant with a huge dining room, a karaoke stage, and a menu nearly twice as long as New Asia's. So far the competition hasn't hurt—New Asia and nearby Nhu Lan Bakery continue to attract the same steady crowds. But you can appreciate the gumption. "That's the nature of business," says Victoria Nguyen. "Once they see the people doing well, they come in to share the profit."