NOTE: Just in case you’ve landed here from a Google search, there is a newer, updated Top 5 Pho post. I ranked all 32 of the pho joints in Chicago, complete with statistical analysis and maps. Published January of 2017.
Nearly every culture has its go-to winter comfort soup. The “Jewish penicillin” has always been matzo ball soup; Mexicans have their hominy-and-pork-jammed pozole, while the Poles are usually seen huddled over mammoth bowls of borscht or bigos (hunter’s stew) this time of year. In the Vietnamese community, the beefy noodle soup known as pho (pronounced “fuh”) is ubiquitous in Chicago, especially along Argyle Street in Uptown. I’ve had good pho in Forest Park (Saigon Pho), Glendale Heights (Pho Ha) and Glen Ellyn (Pho Le), but for sheer convenience, it’s hard to beat a stroll along Argyle, where several good options beckon, and where I’ve been hanging around the last few weeks, in addition to a few other neighborhoods on the far north side.
Each of the members of this week’s list possess certain characteristics and commonalities. It’s important to first understand what makes a good pho. Let’s start with the broth. In each case, the restaurant must boil – for several hours – various components not limited to, but usually including: white onions, hunks of beef bones and a sachet of herbs and spices, which almost always contains star anise, black pepper and Vietnamese cinnamon, but there might also be a few cloves for added depth of flavor. The broths must be skimmed constantly, since there is so much fat coming off of the beef and the marrow. When I see a cloudy pho set down in front of me, I usually ask for the check and a to-go container. Don’t worry about over-skimming; all of these places manage to keep fairly fatty broths, like that picture above, from Hai Yen. See all of the little globules of fat floating on the surface, while still being able to make out the thinly-sliced pieces of beef round and brisket below? That’s what I’m talking about.
As for that beef, you can go one of several ways. Take the adventurous approach and opt for the offal-palooza with tripe and tendon, or just ask for brisket and eye of round, as I did for all of my orders, as a means of setting a baseline. The latter is sometimes a little too lean for me; I would suggest brisket for sure, just so you have some intramuscular fat mixed in. Other stars inside the bowl include a tangle of soft, white vermicelli rice noodles, as well as raw, sliced white onions and a small shower of freshly-chopped cilantro leaves and scallions. That’s about it. Then comes the condiment plate, which honestly, is superfluous.
There are no hard and fast rules here, but again, the best of the bunch will typically present an oval side plate with a mound of fresh bean sprouts, a few small branches of Thai basil and maybe the same amount of long, slender sawtooth leaves. There are also a few circular slices of jalapeño hidden beneath the herb mound, their seeds and veins intact, just in case you want to amp up the heat level of your broth. A lime wedge is de rigueur for squeezing a bit of citrus into the pho, just to brighten it up. I’ve never really fully understood why some people tear into the condiments and load up their bowls of beefy, perfumed soup with all of the extra junk before even tasting it, unadulterated. I don’t mind a hit of citrus or a kiss of basil, but the tendency to throw in the whole plate is a little misguided. Remember, these folks just spent the better part of five or six hours nurturing their broth. Why mess with it?
Finally, there is the small yin-yang dish of hot and sweet. You can add some sriracha chili sauce and/or a sweet hoisin sauce to the tiny dish – side-by-side – which becomes a dipping vessel for the pieces of beef you fish out of the broth. Most bowls cost about $7.50, on average; a buck or two more for a really large bowl that could feed two. Ok, enough with the definitions. On to the list:
1. Hai Yen, 1055 W. Argyle St.; (773) 561-4077
A beefy broth, perfumed with cinnamon and clove; tender beef, just enough fat attached to the brisket and a condiment plate featuring sawtooth leaves. Friendly staff serving a consistently hot bowl.
2. Tank Noodle, 4953 N. Broadway; (773) 878-2253
Gets points for high turnover since the room is always busy. You just know that broth is being skimmed all day long. It’s always served hot, and there’s always a few slices of beef placed on top raw, then cooked in seconds as the hot broth is poured over, just before heading out to the dining room.
3. Pho 888, 1137 W. Argyle; (773) 907-8838
A rich, beguiling broth, suffused with clove and cinnamon, not to mention a heady beefiness that provided a warm facial before I even navigated the shards of white onions and dug into the perfectly cooked noodles. I only wish it was served piping hot (be sure to specify this with your server, that you’d like your bowl served hot).
4. Nha Hang Vietnam, 1032 W. Argyle St.; (773) 878-8895
Known more for their claypot catfish and tamarind soup with shrimp, Nha Hang also makes a killer bowl of pho that stacks up to the rest on Argyle. Brisket and eye of round were exceptional.
5. Saigon Bistro, 6244 N. California Ave.; (773) 564-9336
The most modern-looking of the bunch here, this out-of-the-way Vietnamese restaurant, in a strip mall known more for Gogi Korean BBQ and the adjacent karaoke bar, has some of the best pho and spring rolls outside of Uptown.
Simply It, 2269 N. Lincoln Ave.; (773)248-0884
Who knew DePaul kids had a decent pho option tucked among the Irish sports bars on North Lincoln? I loved the bits of black pepper floating along the top for extra emphasis. Note: it’s $7.50 for a bowl with one meat, but if you add a second, it jumps to $9.50; also, DO NOT order the brisket – I got a gristly, fatty, desiccated piece of something, but it wasn’t brisket. The eye of round was much better.
232 W. Cermak Rd.; (312) 674-9610 – one of the only Vietnamese options in Chinatown
1010 W. Argyle, (773) 878-9943 – like Nha Hang, they also make a dynamite tamarind soup, but the pho is rock solid.