Omnivorous: Exotic Feasts on the Cheap | Food & Drink Column | Chicago Reader

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Omnivorous: Exotic Feasts on the Cheap

Unusual Vietnamese, Ecuadoran, Korean, and Oaxacan eats at bargain prices

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Chi Huynh cooked across the street at Hai Yen for many years but this spring struck out on his own with his brother Van, their aim to provide a more upscale setting than most Argyle Street restaurants. Like its peers, Pho Xua offers a dizzying selection of dishes, but many of them are rare for the neighborhood (though some also appear at Hai Yen), and the freshness and quality of the ingredients seem several notches higher. With a stronger Chinese influence than usual (there's a handful of "Mandarin-style" dishes) and a large selection of pork preparations including a terrific salty house-braised belly (heo rang man), there's a huge expanse of new territory to explore here at the neighborhood's customarily budget-friendly prices. Take the grilled betel leaf-beef appetizer—ground beef fingers tightly wrapped in a dark green dusky-flavored vegetal skin (bo la lot)—or the lotus-stem salad (goi ngo sen), a bracing but light composition of superfresh chicken, shrimp, pork belly, basil, and lotus. Oddly enough, the pho is pretty one-dimensional: the noodles (all over the menu) are terrific, but the broth, while simple and clean, lacks the seductive note of five-spice powder. —MikeSula

Luis Valero, the loquacious owner of Restaurant Ecuador, is quick to inform customers that his food derives from Ecuador's coastal cuisine, which means more seafood and less meat, more plantain and less potato than you'd expect from a place owned by folks from the more mountainous eastern side of the country (read: El Condor). We kicked off our visit with a ceviche of black clam, a chewy bivalve in its own rich black liquor, with shrimp and toasted corn. Many of the appetizers are variations on the theme of cheese-stuffed starch, including queso-filled patties of potato, plantain, and choclo, Ecuadoran corn. Valero recommended the sancocho de pescado, a fish soup in a tasty broth with chunks of plantain and cassava. Seco de chivo, goat stew, had tender chunks of meat in a light tomato sauce alongside rice tinted with achiote and sprinkled with crisp sweet plantain, well matched with a flavorful, relatively mild salsa. A traditional dish, llapingacho, is a pair of potato pancakes, crisp on the outside and creamy inside, dressed with two fried eggs and salty Ecuadoran chorizo and splashed with peanut sauce—crazy good. For dessert there are figs and cheese as well as morocho, hominy cooked in cinnamon and milk. —David Hammond

Of all the reasons people give for being intimidated by Korean restaurants—no English spoken, dark windows—I think the most legitimate is that they're so darn communal. I'll be the first to admit it ain't easy to stroll solo into a place where the tables are filled with extended families or soju-soaked businessmen all attacking giant bubbling centerpieces of delicious-looking food that can't be found on the picture menu. But Lincoln Restaurant renders that problem moot. A tiny lunch counter with a handful of booths, it serves a small selection of extremely well-made simple Korean standards, from a very red shredded-beef soup (yuk gae jang) with nice big chunks of meat and radish to a fat, fleshy grilled croaker to an incendiary sam gyeop sal (stir-fried pork belly with kimchi), one of my all-time favorites. Add in nice surprises like an irresistible eggplant kimchi I've never seen anywhere else, table rice flecked with red beans, and the sweet mother-and-daughter team that runs the place and you've got one of the more comfortable and welcoming spots I can think of for Korean food. —MikeSula

Tiny, family-run Taqueria la OaxaqueÑa is one of the city's very few low-budget restaurants specializing in the sophisticated cuisine of Mexico's Oaxaca state. Regional specialties not found at your neighborhood Taco Borracho are the rule here, specifically a chocolaty house-made mole blanketing chicken and Cornish hens, a rabbit adobado, lots of whole fishes, and cocktails and soups teeming with creatures of the deep. Starters can be simple, like a plate of grilled cactus, onions, and jalapeños, or exaggerated, like a reservoir of melted, chorizo-studded queso that can be dolloped onto a hot tortilla to make a convincing pizza. Pan-Mexican standards (tacos, tamales, and tortas) are largely Oaxacan influenced; the three table salsas are made from chiles, roasted tomatoes, or pumpkin seeds, and the chiles rellenos are anchos instead of poblanos. Even the humble torta—here the signature Torta Oaxaqueña, a towering Dagwood stacked with cesina and chorizo—is singular. —Mike Sula

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