Small in size, this place serves a big taste of Vietnam
Posted Thursday, August 18, 2005
"Fast, fresh, fun food - that's the niche that's missing," says Chef
Susan Furst, who hopes to start filling that gap with her adorable,
little counter-service spot selling fresh and flavorsome
Vietnamese-inspired spring rolls and sandwiches.
comes to her new-wave fast food from an impressive fine-dining
background. She worked under Michael Foley at the erstwhile Printers
Row and Mark Baker at Chicago's Four Seasons Hotel as well as opening
Flying Fish in Seattle.
Baker's tutelage and her West Coast
experience brought her an appreciation and knowledge of the lively
Asian flavors that she packs into the fare at her cheery eatery, which
opened in late June in a rising but still-gritty neighborhood at the
edge of Chicago's East Village.
Furst, who's lived in the area
for a decade, says she chose her site partly for low overhead and
partly out of a desire to add to the locale. Fan Si Pan's bright,
flowered sign provides welcoming color on a block where firmly locked
steel gates still secure most storefronts at night.
The sign says
"fresh spring rolls," but it means goi cuon, a delicate Vietnamese
specialty of cold meat, seafood and/or vegetables, rolled up with fresh
herbs and thin rice noodles in sheer, softened rice paper and served
chilled. Coming up with her concept, says Furst, "I thought, what a
great way to eat salad on the go."
At Fan Si Pan, these are big,
fat, open-ended rolls, wrapped - a bit loosely - to order, and thick
with noodles and ingredients in four sprightly flavors. The most
traditional version rolls up plump shrimp with crisp lettuce, green
onion and fragrant fresh basil in an agreeable contrast of mild and
intense flavors and soft and crunchy textures. There's also an
The succulent "aromatic chicken" roll,
true to its name, features steamed, shredded breast meat enlivened with
a powerful punch of ginger, garlic, kaffir lime, lemongrass and other
heady herbs, enclosed with cool cucumber, crunchy green papaya, leafy
pea shoots and a touch of red pepper, plus fresh cilantro, mint and
basil leaves. My favorite, flavor-packed "five star beef," contains
nicely chewy strips of faintly sweet, lightly spicy, marinated grilled
beef, deliciously enhanced by peanuts, sweet mango slices, bean
sprouts, shredded carrot, green onion and cilantro. The pungency of the
herbs and seasonings and the fresh flavors and crunch of the fruits and
vegetables delightfully complement the other fillings in these rolls.
a 25-cent upcharge, you can get a slightly larger "deconstructed"
version, served sans wrapper, salad style, in a paper tray. (Everything
comes in or on paper or plastic, with plastic utensils or wooden
chopsticks for eating.)
Each of the five tables, set with
backless benches, offers an array of condiments for dipping your rolls
or dousing your deconstructions. I missed the thick, peanutty soybean
dip, tuong goi cuon, typically served with these, but the piquant
chili-lime sauce - Furst's riff on traditional nuoc cham - has a nice
tang and works especially well as a dressing for the salad format.
Those who prefer to avoid hot peppers or fermented fish sauce can try
the pleasant, house-made sweet-and-sour sauce. The one drawback is that
the minuscule paper sauce cups provided are rather too small for
dipping such big rolls into.
Though a commercial item, Terrapin
Ridge Hot! Wasabi Squeeze, another bottle on the table, is also a Furst
creation. The chef, who's spent eight years doing food-product
development, invented the mildly zingy, horseradishy sauce for her
family's 100-year-old business, Furst-McNess Co. It makes a great dip
for the crunchy, almost greaseless, tempura-like french-fried green
beans, a terrific side dish.
Banh mi, or Vietnamese-style
sandwiches, Fan Si Pan's other specialty, derive from the 1858-1954
French occupation of Indochina, which introduced the Vietnamese to
Gallic baked goods. Pronounced "bahn mee" (from the French pain de
mie), the name means "bread" in Vietnamese, and the bread is one of the
things that distinguishes these singular subs. Airier than French
baguettes, the slender, torpedo-shaped rolls are lightened by mixing
rice flour with the wheat flour, creating a shatteringly crispy crust
and a pleasantly pillowy center. Fan Si Pan gets them from Uptown's Ba
Le Chanh Goc, the best-known banh mi shop in Chicago.
Si Pan's splendid sandwiches, you get an explosively flavorful
combination of zippy sliced jalapeno; crunchy, marinated, shredded
daikon radish and carrot; fresh cilantro; a slather of mayonnaise and
your choice of the same aromatic chicken, five-star beef or veggie
fillings used in the goi cuon. Or, for the ultimate East-meets-West
combination, try the ham and pate, filled with slices of boiled ham and
unctuous, delectably seasoned liver paste, also from Ba Le and just as
delightful as that establishment's version of this traditional sandwich.
sandwiches are prepared fresh to order, so they stay nice and crisp. If
you prefer your spring roll or sandwich cut in half, easier for
sharing, request it at ordering time.
In the fall, Furst plans to add pho, Vietnamese beef-noodle soup, to her menu.
include canned Asian drinks and not-to-be-missed honeydew limeade, a
refreshing, lightly sweetened, fruity sipper infused with zesty kaffir
lime, ginger and lemongrass, garnished with bits of fresh melon and
mint. For dessert, choose light and spongy cone cake, filled with sweet
coconut-lime or vanilla-passion fruit sauce, or a diminutive mochi
(sweet rice gum-wrapped) ice cream ball on a stick.
punnishly for the tallest peak in Vietnam, Fan Si Pan is by no means a
full-fledged Vietnamese food experience - for that, make the trip to
one of the many excellent restaurants around Broadway and Argyle
streets in the city's Uptown neighborhood. Yet while it may not be a
destination dining spot for most suburbanites, this quick-service
eatery is definitely worth the quick detour off the Kennedy for anyone
looking for a light, fresh, inexpensive meal on the way to or from
Fan Si Pan
1618 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, (312) 738-1405
Cuisine: Fresh, Vietnamese-style fast food
Setting: Cute, ultra-casual counter service
Price range: Spring rolls $4 to $4.75; sandwiches $4.50; salads and sides $2.50 to $3.25; desserts $1.25 to $2
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday (expected to extend in the fall)
Accepts: Cash only for now (credit cards accepted soon)
Also: BYOB; no wheelchair access to restroom; street parking readily available
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