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January 01, 2007

Tank Restaurant

Dominic Armato
Vietnamese is at or near the top of the list of cuisines I don't know nearly as well as I'd like. I have some general knowledge of the flavors and common ingredients, I'm familiar with many of the most common traditional dishes, but I haven't spent nearly as much time eating my way through Argyle (Chicago's most prominent Vietnamese neighborhood) as I'd like. A couple of months back my ladylove and I decided it was time to change that, so we stopped by what is probably the most well-known of Chicago's casual authentic Vietnamese joints, Pho Xe Tang, aka Tank Restaurant. It has quickly become something of a favorite, and we've been back four times since. Of course, in five trips we've only just barely begun to scratch the surface of the formidable 256 item menu, but we're doing our best to make a dent. Technically speaking, they're a self-proclaimed Vietnamese and Chinese joint, and there are a great many dishes that certainly seem more Chinese than Vietnamese to me. So far, however, we've focused on the Vietnamese fare.

Dominic Armato
I'm no expert on authentic Vietnamese, but I have it on good authority that Tank is the real deal. Given how delicious everything has been, I don't find that hard to believe. Though I should probably be shot for even starting to make a comparison, Vietnamese has always struck me as Thai's simpler, not quite as explosive but fresher and cleaner cousin... there's sweetness that isn't cloying, rice noodles and wrappers, an abundance of shrimp, fish sauce in lieu of salt, vinegar, citrus, and piles and piles of fresh herbs. That and an unusual amount of grilled beef. I've always found Vietnamese very light and refreshing, and Tank is a great place to get it. It's a very casual joint that's loud, a little chaotic and usually packed. I have to wonder if the name has any meaning beyond the most obvious, but there's a little tank on the menu and most of the servers wear camo aprons, so it isn't just a matter of erroneous transliteration. The tables are piled high with hordes of condiments, including hoisin sauce, fish sauce, rice vinegar with jalapeno, a couple types of chile sauce and more. While I always try to trust the chef, it's a dream for those like me who can't help but taste and adjust.

Dominic Armato
The appetizers include a number of spring roll variations, both fresh and fried. We tried the most basic of each, the cha gio (fried egg rolls) and goi cuon (fresh spring rolls). The fried rolls are served with lettuce leaves for wrapping, and an extremely light, fresh sweet & sour fish sauce for dipping. There are endless variations out there, traditional and otherwise, on fried spring rolls, but this is my favorite way to have them. The sauce isn't overly potent and cloying, so it doesn't bury the flavor of the roll, and wrapping the roll in a fresh lettuce leaf takes an otherwise heavy dish and makes it light and refreshing. The fresh spring rolls are also straight-up traditional, with rice vermicelli, fresh herbs, shrimp, sprouts, a couple of other vegetables and, in Tank's case, a bit of pork. They're served with a chilled peanut sauce that's smooth and slightly sweet. Simple and delicious, both.

Dominic Armato
Next up, pictured above, is one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, chao tom... lovingly referred to in our household as shrimp pops. A thick paste is first made from shrimp, shallots, garlic, pork fat and some other seasonings. This paste is then formed around sugarcane and grilled. It brings to mind my old favorite, the Japanese shrimpburger, but it's a little more refined. At Tank, it's served with a pile of fresh herbs and rice vermicelli, as well as dried rice wrappers and a bowl of hot water with which to rehydrate them. High-maintenance, but that's the price you pay for extreme freshness. I also ordered the banh cong, which wasn't at all what I expected, but we loved it nonetheless. It's translated as "deep fried shrimp cakes stuffed with mung bean", and I thought it'd be closer to the chao tom, but it actually veered much more towards the mung bean end of the spectrum. I'm sure there was some shrimp in the cake itself (aside from the crispy fried shrimp on top), but the texture and flavor was much more of a fried batter, which is where I assume the mung beans came in. The banh cong came with similar accoutrements, the exception being lettuce instead of rice wrappers for rolling.

Dominic Armato
We had a couple of spectacular salads as well. The first is bun bo nuong, which comes in a number of varieties that vary some of the toppings. They're all served on a base of chilled rice vermicelli with some lettuce, cucumber, carrot, bean sprouts and mint, and they come with a lightly tart and sweet "lemon fish sauce" for dressing. The version you see here includes grilled beef and shrimp, chopped peanuts, a fried egg roll (same as the appetizer, I believe) and a slice of grilled sausage. Everything is simple and delicious, but the sausage was a surprise. It's some powerful stuff, fairly tart and very garlicky. I understand it's made in-house, and it's really delicious. The dish mixes cold and hot, tart and sweet, moist and dry... all wonderfully balanced. I've had "Vietnamese Rice Noodle Salads" elsewhere that were inspired by this dish, but they have a tendency to get far too heavy and overpowering... more like noodles swimming in sweet sour sauce. I know I sound like a broken record, but Tank keeps this dish very simple, light and refreshing. When it's 90º and muggy, this will be at or near the top of my list of perfect hot weather meals.

Dominic Armato
This one, however, is probably my favorite of everything we've tasted so far. It's called bo tai chanh, and it's a salad that's primarily composed of a very healthy helping of thinly sliced beef that's just barely cured in onions and lemon juice... essentially raw. It also contains large strips of onion, carrot and red bell pepper, along with a ton of fresh basil, another long-leafed and very green-tasting herb I can't identify, and a little fresh lime to squeeze. Finally, it's topped with a few airy, crispy shrimp chips for texture. I'm partial to good preparations of raw beef so I'm a little predisposed to enjoy this one, but I still think it's one of the best raw beef treatments I've had. It's definitely the most raw beef I've ever consumed in one sitting, which is probably saying something right there. I've had some mean carpaccios, but none that I'd want to eat in this quantity. Light, citrusy, delicious, and absolutely featuring the beef.

Dominic Armato
Of course, there's some more wintry fare as well. One that sounded quite promising but ended up being my singular disappointment was the hu tieu kho dac biet. It's billed as a "special" rice noodle soup, and by special I can only assume they mean all-encompassing. A very mild broth is served on the side (I suspect so that it can be seasoned before being added to the noodles, though if anybody with more Vietnamese experience can confirm, I'd love to know for sure), and the noodles are topped with so many little tastes I can't even remember them all. There was cooked shrimp, barbecued pork, cooked chicken, a couple different dumplings, pork meatball, a salted quail egg, crab meat, cucumbers, herbs, fried shallots and a few other items I'm forgetting. There's a certain novelty to the little taste of everything under the sun approach, but unlike the other dishes we had that incorporated multiple elements, I didn't feel that these worked together. It may very well be intended as more of a sampler and less of a cohesive dish, but it just didn't appeal to me.

Dominic Armato
Let this not, however, lend the impression that Tank doesn't serve some excellent soups, because their pho is phenomenal. If the chilled noodle salad is my ideal hot weather dish, this is my ideal cold weather dish. I've had pho at a few other joints in the city, but having it at Tank was like tasting it for the first time. Admittedly, this may be a function of my pho inexperience rather than Tank's awesomeness, but I suspect it's more the latter than the former. For anybody who's still in the dark, pho is an intensely flavored yet very light and clear beef soup that is one of the primary faces of Vietnamese cuisine in the States (not to mention the inspiration for endless bad puns). Tank serves a number of variations on the theme, but I tried the restaurant's namesake, the pho xe tang. It's a slightly larger bowl than the rest that includes a number of different cuts of beef, including brisket, flank, tendon, tripe, a meatball, and a small pile of rice vermicelli hiding at the bottom. Though I'm sure many will be tempted to choose iterations of the soup that skip the tendon, tripe and more intimidating beefy parts, I'd discourage that practice. Flavor-wise, they're completely inoffensive. They're all about texture, and if they just don't do it for you, well, they're easy to eat around. But you owe it to yourself to give them a try.

Dominic Armato
As for the broth, though you're given a ton of options for seasoning the soup yourself, this is the first pho I've had that I don't feel obligated to season. It's dynamite all on its own, with a great beefy intensity and a nice blend of seasonings that, much to my excitement, doesn't skimp one bit on the star anise. Still, pho is all about personalization, and in addition to the myriad table condiments mentioned above, each bowl comes with a plate of accoutrements including bean sprouts, basil, the aforementioned mystery herb from the raw beef salad, sliced jalapenos and a wedge of fresh lime. I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm accustomed to hammering my pho with fish sauce and vinegar (a desperate attempt to jazz up mediocre pho, I like to think), but at Tank, I find that a little fresh basil, a tiny dash of lime and a couple of jalapeno slices are all the modification I wish on such a great soup. It's their namesake for a reason.

Pho Xe Tang (Tank Restaurant)
4953 N. Broadway
Chicago, IL 60640
Mon - Sat8:30 AM - 11:00 PM
Sun8:30 AM - 9:00 PM
Closed Wed


I love Vietnamese. Pho soup makes the world go round! I love adding the fresh basil to the broth at the table.

Those rolls look beautiful.

I like this one dish with the pork chop with the soup. I don't know what it is called

The mystery herb is, I'm pretty sure, a species of lemongrass.


The mystery herb pictured is culantro, a/k/a saw tooth herb, a/k/a ngo gai. It's recao in Puerto Rico, and is the basic ingredient in the Puerto Rican mother-condiment recaito (a recao sofrito, basically). Cubans and Dominicans use it, too, though less. I'm often asked by the Cuban in-laws to pick some up on Argyle, as the Viet places are the best source for fresh culantro. It's the proper herb in black bens, though cilantro is more commonly used.


Ah, thanks, Jeff... mystery solved!

I had seen that listed elsewhere on the menu, actually, and had assumed it was a typo. I imagine I'm not the first.

(I hope I'm not the first.)

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