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May 07, 2007

Fish, Fish and Fish

Dominic Armato
Aaaaaaaaand, we're back.

I've been doing a surprising amount of eating out over the past month, given how little of it has made it to the written word stage. So let's kick off the backlog with an interesting little (read: big) meal I had with a bunch of friends a few weeks ago.

Whenever I cruise up to Argyle for a Vietnamese fix, my biggest issue is the huge shadow that Tank casts. Tank is such a great spot with such an extensive menu that it's hard to work up the will to branch out and explore. So when Erik of silapaahaan.com (currently down... a tragic story for another time) mentioned that he'd been anxious to try the fish feast at Pho 777, you'd better believe I jumped all over that invite. While I was familiar with the traditional Vietnamese Bò 7 Món (seven courses of beef), I was previously unaware that there's a less common Cá 7 Món, which substitutes fish for the beef. Pho 777 sneaks in an extra course to create their Eight Courses of Fish dinner, which was pretty outstanding.

Dominic Armato
The first course, pictured above, was a fairly typical Vietnamese salad with cucumbers, carrots, chiles and ground peanuts mixed in with the shredded fish, dressed with the usual triumvirate of fish sauce, lime juice and sugar. There were, however, three elements that separated if from other, similar Vietnamese salads I've had. For starters, the dressing was unusually mellow, which deferred to the fish, appropriately. Secondly, there was a lot of thinly sliced celery, which caught me totally off-guard, as that wasn't something I'd seen much in Vietnamese. Lastly, there was a very distinctive fresh herb present that was also new to me, which Erik identified as Vietnamese Cilantro, or Rau Ram. The salad was flanked by a phalanx of shrimp chips, and on the whole was really fantastic. More complex and more subtly balanced than the others I've had, it was definitely the most interesting and possibly the most enjoyable Vietnamese salad I've tasted to date.

Dominic Armato
To my surprise, courses two through six arrived together, as a flurry of items to be eaten in rice wrappers along with the typical accoutrements. For those unfamiliar with the practice, Vietnamese foods, especially fried items, are frequently served with thin rice wrappers, vermicelli noodles and a platter of fresh herbs and vegetables similar to the one you see above. You rehydrate the rice wrapper at the table, wrap the item in question with your preferred vegetables and herbs and dip it in a sweet and tart lemon fish sauce. This method of keeping fried items fresh and light is pure genius, and one of my favorite aspects of Vietnamese cuisine. But getting back to the fish, in my rush to consume the fried items at peak freshness, here's where my recollection is a little fuzzy. Starting in the foreground and working clockwise, first there were fried fish fillets that I believe were coated in panko. Simple, light, crisp, moist in the center and delicious. Next were spring rolls filled with a rather dense fish paste... seasoned, I believe, but lightly so. Next around was another type of firm cooked fish paste that was wrapped in a leaf with a rather aggressive flavor called La Lot. Hiding in the back barely visible, was more fried fish, this time coated in... sesame? It was the last I tried, the next course was already on the table and my attention was not what it should have been. My brain registered it as "good," but neglected to file away any further detail. And finally, a fresh spring roll with light cooked fish, vermicelli and fresh herbs. Everything was delicious, but the leaf-wrapped item was particularly interesting and distinctive to me. I was a little disappointed that all of the fried items were served at the same time, making it impossible to try everything at its peak. But given the number of courses I suppose spreading them out might be impractical.

Dominic Armato
After we'd plowed through the massive platter, a dish arrived that was something of a surprise to me. (This was, incidentally, the last time I'll try photographing by reaching an arm across the table in low light.) As I've mentioned before, I'm still feeling my way around Vietnamese. I have the basics down, but things still catch me by surprise now and again. In this case, that something was an almost obscene amount of turmeric. The dish consisted of fillets of fish that had been, I believe, first batter-dipped and deep fried, then seasoned with ginger and the aforementioned turmeric, seared in a skillet and topped with fried shallots and peanuts. Nice crust, a little crisp, appropriately tender and moist in the middle and overall very nice. In case it wasn't already clear, this one was all about the turmeric. I'm sure some will find it overly so, but don't for a moment count me among them. I dug it.

Dominic Armato
Finally, we finished off the meal with a year's supply of fish congee, which I enjoyed a lot more than I would have expected. It was warm, mellow, soft and comforting but not at all the exercise in blandness that is so often the case with congee. The flavors of fish and fresh ginger were at the forefront, but there were clearly some other subtle seasonings going on as well. Others in the group felt it was a little heavy on the salt, but I thought it was right in the sweet spot of notably and appropriately salty, but not overly so. Were it not at the end of a massive feast, I could've easily torn through the entire bowl you see pictured. As it was, I think I was personally responsible for about half. Perfect, perfect finish. All in all, it was a really wonderful dinner, and at under $20 per person, an absolute steal. It's worth noting that there's a minimum of two orders, and while I don't believe it's required, advance notice is appreciated.

Pho 777
1065 W. Argyle St.
Chicago, IL 60625


Nice post. There's something of a dearth of credible pho places here in Atlanta, but there is a growing Asian and Latin American supply and demand equilibrium nearby where I live that has become something of a "thing to do while in Atlanta." I'll have to sample and get back to you.

Also, with the James Beard Awards announced and Chicago being represented decently in the nominations, I was wondering if you could work up a post related to that. In particular, two of the best chef nominees are in Chicago, and I know you've eaten at Everest (or am I wrong?). But perhaps the crowning achievement is recognition of Frontera by the establishment. As a food dilettante, for what it's worth, Bayless has always impressed me with his enthusiasm and sincerity, as well as his bravado. Would Bobby Flay even exist if Bayless hadn't blazed the trail?

I discovered your wonderful blog (great pictures btw, do you get odd looks when you take them?) while looking up a local restaurant, but give us some background on yourself: What do you do; are you in the food business? Why do you travel to China so often? What is "Iron Chef Chicago"? The closest thing I can find is the tv show, but they don't mention a competition where non-chefs cook. Thanks!

I feel like I've just found an interesting novel, but the front half of the book is frustratingly missing...there's no context.

Hey, Daily!

I know, I know... you're not the first to say so.

I've been meaning to for a while. I hope to do so soon. I guess I want the blog to be about the food and not about me, but I can understand how it might be a little odd to read some of this stuff without context :-)

I'll get there... promise!

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