The past few days, we’ve laid out our methodology and procedure for finding the best bowls in Chicago and the contenders at play. Now the moment you’ve all been waiting for. After tasting 31 bowls of pho and countless weeks of crunching numbers and pouring over notes with my Pho Consigliere – Paul Nguyen – we have our new Top 5 Pho in the city of Chicago. Tune in to ABC 7 today at 11:45 a.m. if you’re in town (or watch live streaming) to see my top 3 featured. I’ll also be doing a Facebook Live with Paul at 12 pm CST today, talking about our Top 10 and answering your questions.
I’m officially off of pho duty for a few weeks, but I look forward to hearing your thoughts and reading your comments below.
1055 W. Argyle St.; 773-561-4077
Condiments: bean sprouts, lime, jalapeños, Thai basil; “yin-yang” dish of hoisin-sriracha
I’ve always been a fan of Hai Yen, and this bowl didn’t disappoint. As we plunged our noses over the rim, just after it was set down onto the table, we picked up a well-balanced aroma of beefiness and aromatics, and liked the amount of scallion-cilantro-white onion they garnished with. We thought there could have been a tad more meat inside, but the temperature was spot-on. Meatballs were the highlight, but thought the size/diameter/thickness of the other cuts was just right; a lot of beefy flavor in the broth to boot. It’s an impressive achievement, considering the menu is so large.
6144 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-583-7770
Condiments: Big, leafy Thai basil, jalapeños, lime, bean sprouts
Like most of our top 5 picks, the dining room here is packed with Vietnamese American families and there’s some local art on the walls. There’s a strong beefy smell at the initial whiff, not as much on the aromatics. A few shards of white onion and some chopped scallions flecked with black pepper are scattered across the top. Plenty of meat here, and all of the cuts are well represented; great meatballs – tender and plump – and a very good eye of round that’s thinly-sliced and yet soft, from just being barely cooked in the hot broth.
1114 W. Argyle St.; 773-334-4500
Price: $8.95 and $9.95
Condiments: Limes, jalapeños, Thai basil, culantro and bean sprouts
As we watched the Chinese soap opera play on the TV over the front counter, one of the city’s best bowls was whisked out to our table: piping hot, adorned with plenty of scallions and white onions. This two year-old restaurant knows how to cook beef. Eye of round is thinly-sliced, very tender, right alongside a stellar brisket; there’s a generous piece of oxtail as well. Broth is clear – the result of lots of straining – after a long simmer of about 16 hours. There are still plenty of fat droplets across the surface, and there are just enough aromatics emanating from the lip of the bowl as well.
4941 N. Broadway; 773-769-1284
Price: $8.95 and $9.95
Condiments: Bean sprouts, jalapeño, Thai basil, lime (can request culantro – they won’t automatically include unless you’re Asian)
Open for seven years now, Pho Viet attracts ex-pats looking for a taste of home (or at least what their moms made growing up here). This broth – simmered gently for 14 hours – contains plenty of aromatics such as star anise, fresh ginger, black pepper and cinnamon. The aroma is well-balanced between hearty beefiness and delicate aromatics. Meats are displayed proudly in the bowl, which has just a few white onions and a smattering of fresh cilantro and chopped scallion across the top. The only dud in the bowl were the mediocre meatballs, but everything else – from the tender eye of round to the fatty brisket – was memorable. They have a large menu here, but it seems like every other table has a bowl of pho on it, for good reason.
Pho Nam Lua (aka 5 Lua)
6261 McCormick Blvd.; 773-509-0909
Price: $7.90 and $10.50
Condiments: Lots of bean sprouts, lime, jalapeño, Thai basil, plenty of culantro
There are so many things I love about Pho Nam Lua (also known as 5 Lua): the quaint, local artwork, the friendly staff, generous condiments; the fact that it’s far from Argyle and across the street from a Home Depot. This was one of those pleasant surprises you so rarely get to enjoy while checking out (and discovering) restaurants in Chicago. While they also offer a pho with Kobe (more likely Wagyu) beef, we thought that version was almost too fatty. Just look at the picture above and you’ll see our bowl of pho dac biet had plenty of fat droplets, even after it had been skimmed for hours. This broth had more aromatics going for it, the result of fresh leeks, lots of coriander seed, star anise and fresh ginger. Topped with a small handful of white onions and fresh cilantro, they also manage to include some larger pieces of scallion as well as a giant hunk of oxtail. Best of all, the bowls are served at the appropriate temperature – hot – and we thought the meat quality throughout the bowl was superb – not only plump meatballs embedded with some tendon but raw eye of round just barely cooked through from the hot broth. Everything is well-balanced here, from the aroma to the beefy taste and the temperature – it’s a bowl I could find myself going back to all winter long. The condiment plate is overflowing with fresh, unblemished basil, lots of crisp bean sprouts and a generous tangle of culantro. (side note: we also tried their bun bo hue – a spicy soup with drastically different noodles and condiments – and I’d recommend trying one of those as well if you haven’t had it before; it’s my “Extra Course” feature at abc7chicago.com today, if you’re interested in seeing some video of it).