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At HaiSous, Thai Dang mounts the restaurant comeback of the year

The former Embeya chef leads a peasant revolt in Pilsen with homey, unfussy Vietnamese food.

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Only the most miserable cad would not wish good things to come to Thai and Danielle Dang. The chef and beverage director were, as Crain's reported, the victims of an audacious scam perpetrated by their former partners at the now defunct West Loop restaurant Embeya. The Dangs lost not only their jobs, but a fortune, by industry standards, in money and equipment.

Embeya was a popular restaurant, and while its spectacular collapse reverberated throughout the city's restaurant scene, I was already looking forward to the chef's next move. I had reservations about Embeya's fussy, refined, and sometimes over-restrained approach toward Vietnamese-ish food. I was less impressed by Thai's pursuit of what he called "progressive Asian" than the dishes that made him seem like he was yearning to cook unabashedly homey Vietnamese food that wasn't about coddling a fragile downtown dining set or impressing Instagram poobahs. So when the couple began talking up a new restaurant and it appeared that the chef would be focusing on a more orthodox, less glammy approach—even invoking the words "peasant food"—my hope was that this would be the Chicago's restaurant comeback of the year.

The comeback has occurred in Pilsen, far from the high-rent frippery of the West Loop. HaiSous is a project largely built around the kitchen's use of charcoal-burning clay-pot grills known as lo lot, and further presentation of some other relatively uncommon dishes. What you won't see are the common standards of Vietnamese food in the West. No banh mi, no pho (not yet anyway), not even the caramel clay-pot dishes called kho to that very often serve as a gateway drug for an unbreakable Vietnamese habit.

One purely cosmetic hint that Dang isn't fucking around is that his menu's first language is Vietnamese, all categories and dishes written in their original names, diacriticals included. So you might be surprised that thit ba chi nuong is nothing more complicated than bits of tamarind-glazed grilled pork belly, or that muc nuon are scored and charred bits of tensile squid, each served with a small dish of salt, lemongrass threads, and limes to create a dipping sauce. Each morsel comes with a kiss of smoke that will trigger the most primal pleasure centers of your brain. Even more desirable are the charred bites of rib eye marinated in soy, chile, and a house-made Maggi-like sauce. But some of Dang's cooks might consider an easier hand with more delicate proteins. A half lobster I ordered spent way too much time on the grill, arriving at my table dry, rubbery, and ready for retirement.

Similar advice could be taken about a few of the braised dishes. Both a very simple duck preparation (vit kho gung) and sweet braised spare ribs with quail (so nau nuoc dua) tasted as if all the flavor had been leached from them without enhancing their attendant braising mediums.

There are ways to make up for that. Finely shredded papaya salad carries none of the blistering heat or funk of a Thai-style som tam, but its bits of shredded beef jerky play nicely with its appropriately gentle sweetness. A duck salad is light on the meat but doesn't slack on chewy cracklings, crunchy brassicas, and snappy banana blossom. Large fried chicken wings are sticky with the burnt-caramel depth you might otherwise be missing from this menu, while an octopus salad with perilla leaf, confit eggplant, and shaved radishes, underscored by reduced coconut cream infused with lemongrass and ginger, is a study in loveliness that shows Dang hasn't put Embeya completely behind him. The most aggressively seasoned bite on the menu is a tangle of cool rice noodles wrapped in lettuce, dipped in a magenta shrimp-paste sauce, and served with a side of fried tofu to help absorb its magnetic pungency.

A handful of simple small plates can help round out ample specials like a tomahawk pork chop, almost porchetta-like with layers of juicy muscle, rich belly fat, and crackly skin; its richness can be cut with snappy bamboo shoots, meaty trumpet mushrooms, or sweet, lightly pickled cucumbers, or kohlrabi shavings.

So far the kitchen hasn't made much use of the talents of pastry chef Loni Diep, on one of my visits offering only a selection of tropical fruits. But on another occasion a flaky cream puff filled with coconut cream—a take on creamy iced coffee drinks known as cà phê sua đá—was a pleasure that needed no company.

Before working at Embeya, Danielle Dang was a bartender at the erstwhile Elysian Hotel (where her future husband worked at Ria). She's still in the game here, with lighter food- friendly cocktails like a negroni made with Japanese whiskey or a mezcal-and-pineapple refresher cut with a nippy dose of bitter Cappelletti Aperitivo. The wine list is overwhelmingly dominated by 16 sparklers, all under $100, ranging from an eye-tinglingly acidic Moncontour brut rosé to a creamy, tightly fizzy Vigneau-Chevreau Pétillant. Dang has gone full peasant mode at Haisous, but I can't think of anything better suited to this homey yet brightly seasoned food than bubbly. You could call this his comeback, but I think it's been in him for years.   v

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