Today I'm turning over this space to all-star intern Samantha Rollins, a student at Northwestern. Her mission: to seek affordable, delicious eats, without breaking her meager budget.
From the moment we got off the Red Line at the Argyle stop, the aroma of Vietnamese food was in the air. You'd be hard-pressed to find a restaurant there that isn't authentic - after all, this area of Uptown is often called "Little Vietnam." As it started to rain, my friends and I ducked into Cafe Hoang, at 1010 W. Argyle Street.
Inside, the restaurant was sparsely decorated, save for the few live plants pushed up against the neon-lit interior. Despite it being a Sunday night, all of the tables were taken, mostly by Vietnamese families, and I was glad to see their stamp of approval. The drink and smoothie menu was extensive, and we were eager to try the mango, avocado and durian versions. But after ordering, our waitress came back sheepishly and informed us that they were "out of smoothies." While it was a disappointment, on this rainy night, all we were really searching for was a good, cheap and plentiful bowl of pho, and Cafe Hoang delivered on that promise.
The traditional pho (beef) and pho ga (chicken-both $6.95) came out steaming in large bowls and were served with a side of lime, basil and bean sprouts for garnish. The portions were perfect - large enough that you can leave completely stuffed, but not unreasonably huge. Both the pho and pho ga broths delivered a balanced mix of saltiness and herbal fragrance from the basil and cilantro. To this I added a little bit of a kick, thanks to the Sriracha chili sauce and pickled red chilies at our table. Cafe Hoang's pho is a comforting soup that clears your sinuses and would be perfect for a head cold. All around us, the murmurs of Vietnamese conversation were punctuated by the slurping of noodles at every table.
After finishing our bowls of therapeutic soup and craving something sweet, we walked down a block to an unnamed Vietnamese bakery under the El stop. Everything from vacuum-packed sticky rice in a rainbow of colors to baked Vietnamese treats lined the shelves. First we tried some small red bean pastries (85 cents each), which were small, doughy balls of red bean and sweetened rice flour, rolled in sesame seeds. But the standout was the large and hearty green rice pie called banh bo. At $6, this thick and chewy sponge cake made with rice flour, sweetened with coconut milk and topped with sesame seeds had an addictive, subtle sweetness and incredible honeycomb-like texture. While the vibrant green color, which came from the tropical pandan plant, didn't add much flavor, it certainly added to the dessert's exoticism, and I'm glad we took the cashier's advice and got the pie microwaved.
A bowl of steaming pho from Cafe Hoang and a warm banh bo cake from a nearby bakery could sustain me and my budget for a long time; it was a perfect combination for soothing the inevitable wintertime blues. But before the blizzards come, this college student will be back for more.
Cafe Hoang, 1010 W. Argyle Street, open Monday through Saturday 9:30 a.m to 11 p.m., Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., (773) 848-9943.