Chicago's Vietnamese-food scene, most would agree, is largely concentrated around the Argyle stop of the Red Line. If you're beset by a taste for phở, you don't need to stroll too far from the station to satisfy the craving. But surely there are pockets, or at least single outposts, elsewhere in town where you can score as-good Vietnamese noodles without trekking to Uptown? The proliferation of joints serving respectable bánh mì would suggest that such an expectation is not unfounded. Plus, I had already had luck with the noodles at Bon Bon in Wicker Park. So to carry on the experiment I recently turned my attention to Simply It, in Lincoln Park.
What I found was a restaurant of odd contradictions. The service could be frustratingly aloof at points, then overly attentive. Certain aspects of the food seemed lazily executed, while others showed great promise and care. But I came away thinking that the good outweighed the bad, thanks to the tip of the scales brought by the diverse and memorable noodles.
First up, the Asian vegetables on crispy noodles (mi xao don) ($10.25). To me this dish seemed more Chinese in flavor than Vietnamese, mostly due to its base of savory brown sauce. The nest of wispy fried egg noodles were accompanied by cabbage, carrots, broccoli, and string beans—all bright, crunchy, and fresh. The noodles themselves started off light and crispy; after mingling with the brown sauce, they acquired a firm bite and a more pronounced flavor. I liked how the dish developed as you ate it—to see the textural play of the vegetables against the crisp then more pliant noodles.
I was most looking forward to trying the Northern Vietnam fisherman's soup (bun rieu) (small $8.95/large $13.95). This is a tangy, brothy noodle soup littered with seafood, scrambled egg, tomatoes, and other veggies. I was dining with a friend, so the server assumed we wanted the "large" portion—which on the menu is suggested for two to four people (whereas the "small" is for one to two). Well, the bathtub that arrived could have easily fed six. Again, there was as much promise and delight as there was disappointment. The broth was intriguing—tomatoey, with a slight tangy, sour finish. Yet the quartered tomatoes in the broth were somewhat bland and tinny. Most of the seafood was tender and tasty, including the de-shelled mussels and crab. The exception was the pitifully small and extremely overcooked shrimp. The rice noodles came through, though, with a firm bite that never diminished after several returns to the massive cauldron.
The seafood noodles (hu tieu xao do bien) ($14.95) brought yet another noodle variety to the table: a ribbon-thick, doughy rice noodle. Simply It's kitchen uses the same brown sauce on this dish as it does on the crispy noodles, it turns out. Bummer—I was hoping for some new flavors. But that said, the noodles elevated what was otherwise a one-note dish. They has been given a healthy dose of wok char, lending each bite a smoky, charcoal-tinged undertone. Noodles to the rescue.