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Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2005 DINING  

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.

Furst 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 all-vegetable version.

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.

For 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.

Inside Fan 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.

The 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.

Beverages 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.

Named 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 downtown.

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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