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Thursday, July 25

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Editor's note: This article originally appeared on January 24, 2005.

Strangely, Vietnamese hasn't caught on the way Thai and other Asian cuisines have in the States, possibly because there aren't many Vietnamese restaurants around, or maybe because of that war a few decades back. Chicago is fortunate to have not just one Vietnamese place but an entire street lined with them -- Argyle between Broadway and Sheridan -- along with Korean, Thai and Chinese. Which means you have several choices when it comes time for you to try that signature dish of Vietnam: pho.

This is pho weather. Its warm broth and mix of beef, noodles, herbs and vegetables simmering in rich beef stock can help ease the chill out of the coldest winter night. We decided to sample this delicacy at Pho 777, one of several restaurants with similar "Pho triple-number" names. The restaurant is well-lit and clean, with pleasant if quirky easy-listening music playing in the background. The menu is huge, listing many other dishes besides the pho, including a good number of seafood options. Vegetarians, unfortunately, have a much smaller selection.

We started off our meal with an appetizer of "chargrilled shrimp." At $6.95, this was the most expensive appetizer on the menu, twice as much as, say, the spring rolls. The menu described as "shrimp mousse wrapped around crab claws and chargrilled." Shrimp mousse turned out to be a puréed mixture of shrimp and spices with a consistency similar to a meatball or seitan. The app consisted of two racquetball-sized balls of mousse surrounding cracked and steamed crab claws. They were sort of sweet and salty, with just a hint of char. Try it with a squeeze of lime.

Now, on to the pho. Pho 777 offers nearly two dozen options, each with a different combination of brisket, beef balls, tripe and flank steak in beef stock with a huge helping of rice noodles at the bottom of the bowl. Each is offered in small or large -- the small is maybe a couple ounces smaller and still easily big enough to satisfy as a main course. Prices range from around $4 for the cheapest small bowl up to $7 or $8 for the most expensive large.

I opted for a pho containing brisket, flank steak and tripe. It arrived shortly after we finished our appetizer -- the timing of our courses was impeccable -- along with a plate of raw bean sprouts, jalapeno slices, Thai basil, a long Vietnamese herb called culantro (ngo ga in Vietnamese {thanks ErikM.}) and lime to add according to personal taste. A wide array of chili pastes, soy and hoisin sauce and other condiments are on each table for those who wish to spice things up a bit.

The soup was excellent, just what I needed to help battle a nagging cold. I mixed in some herbs and bean sprouts, squeezed in some lime juice and dug in. The meat was succulent, perfectly cooked, and each added its flavor to the dish. Most Americans are a bit squeamish about tripe, but it's actually quite delicate in flavor; if you really don't want it, Pho 777 has many phos without it. The noodles were more than I could eat, so I settled on finishing the broth, leaving at least half the noodles in the bowl.

In addition to the many beef-based options, there is a pho-style "chicken noodle soup" available. It tasted a little oily, which was actually nice, but it's possible there's some beef broth mixed in with the chicken. Cuts of chicken were lean, and the noodles were not overcooked (which can be a problem) or a solid mass at the bottom of the bowl.

We also ordered an entrée of the same shrimp mousse from the appetizer over dry (sauce- or broth-free) vermicelli noodles with bean sprouts, cilantro and lime. The mousse had a different, lighter flavor here, perhaps because it wasn't grilled. It was still very good, though. Next time we'll try some of the other seafood options.

We didn't look at the dessert list -- we were too full to contemplate it! -- but the restaurant serves bubble tea and fruit smoothies, in the usual flavors. Those who need a pick-me-up might consider a Vietnamese style coffee, an espresso and condensed milk concoction similar to Thai iced coffee.

Pho 777 is located at 1065 W. Argyle Ave. Call 773/561-9909 for hours.

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About the Author(s)

Fork It Over is the result of weekly dinners with members of the Gapers Block staff. This week's review was written by Andrew Huff and Anne Holub.

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