Never Judge a Vietnamese Restaurant by Its Pho (At Least in Chicago)

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Bad pho doesn't mean the rest of the menu isn't worth trying.

Even though one burned down last week due to an unfortunate fire, it feels like there are almost more Vietnamese restaurants on or near Chicago's Argyle Street in the Little Vietnam neighborhood than there are in Vietnam itself.

Over the years I've slurped down bowls of steamy pho from the majority of them as frequently as the McKenzie brothers drink beer. I figure the basic meaty broth of pho is a good indicator of the rest of a Vietnamese restaurant's fare. If a spot uses prepackaged broths, they likely don't care about putting out good food. If they make the broth from scratch and offer fresh-cut herbs, then I'm usually on to something bigger. Turns out that's not quite a foolproof plan--at least not at New Saigon where the pho isn't exactly transcendent.

In fact, everything about New Saigon--from the year-round Christmas decoration, to the Michael Jackson album poster, to the bowl of waxed fruit in the entertainment center and other bric-a-brac lovingly lit by a spotlight--suggests you should run the other way for your Vietnamese food.

By ordering an assortment of goodies though, I discovered that broth don't mean a thing when it comes to meat acumen. One highlight was the broiled marinated beef on their #702 "Bun" dish--it was smoky and sesame-crusted with a sweet glaze. Even better was #1403, a stir-fry of tender chicken flecked with red chilies and the bright zing of lemongrass and ginger. Spicy, sweet, salty, with a touch of acid, it was a full palate coater, and one of the better dishes I've had near argyle.

New Saigon

5000 N. Broadway, Chicago IL 60640 (at W. Argyle Street; map) 773-334-3322