Good Phở and No Lines at Phở Tàu Bay in Uptown
The Asian restaurant row on Argyle ought to be arranged vertically, because the further you get from Broadway, the more you feel like you're drilling down into its hidden depths. By the time you get to Sheridan, it could be another city—who's been to Benny's Grill? Who knew there was an Indian restaurant (Masala)? And why in God's name would you open yet another phở place there, at the very end of a strip full of phở places?
But someone must have given Phở Tàu Bay a try, because it's survived a year and more. And it's become a regular stop for me on Argyle, because it's easy. While people are lining up at Tank or one of the others, you can always get a seat. While people are trying to flag someone down at Tank or one of the others, you can actually get served.
And it's pretty good. The phở is quite good, rich cinnamony broth with the clean bright flavor of the fresh herbs and vegetables you dump in tableside.
Another soup, bún bò Huế, was pretty good, but like every bún bò Huế except Cafe Hoang's, it lacked the funk of the version at Cafe Hoang which has the broth's common secret ingredient—pork blood. Bánh xèo (seafood pancake) was delicate with crispy edges. And there's a nice little surprise at the end of every meal, which I won't spoil.
Behind the counter there's also a listing of several very good bánh mì (sandwiches), though the reality is that they usually don't have any of the choices except the one or two made with chả lụa, the pork roll mystery meat that you often find on bánh mì. They're generous with it, maybe because, as their website, which translates it as "hams wrapped in banana leaf" notes, they make it themselves. Anyway, the effect is of a supersized bánh mì, a bánh mì fit for American lunch appetites.
As you'll notice from the website and the menu cover, there's an airplane motif to the restaurant. I haven't gotten much out of the owner on multiple visits, not least because he clearly doesn't remember me from one to the next, but I did at least manage to solve that: he explained that the name, which translates as Airplane Noodle, comes from a restaurant which his grandfather had in Saigon some 50 or 60 years ago, just outside the Tan Son Nhat airport. The last planes from Saigon have been landing on Argyle in Chicago ever since.