Earlier this year when I learned that a Pho restaurant might be opening on Madison Street, I was pretty excited because Vietnamese cuisine is hard to come by south of the Argyle stop on the red line. The last time I’d had Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup, was in 5th grade. After that, my Vietnamese best friend moved away and I no longer had the opportunity to enjoy her family’s cooking.
When Saigon Pho and Café opened at 7237 Madison St. two months ago, my friend Dan (one of the biggest foodies I know), gave it a rave review. He loved the food and said that he and his girlfriend only paid around twenty-five dollars for a full meal for two, including appetizers and (non-alcoholic) beverages. The next day he even went back to get Bahn Mi sandwiches for lunch!
After learning from Dan that there were vegan options available for me, I convinced my husband, who can be wary of new cuisine, to give Saigon Pho and Café a try. We shared veggie spring rolls, a vermicelli noodle dish, and vegan Pho. Sure enough, we, too, ended up raving about our meal to everyone who would listen. I’ve been back a few times and still can’t decide which I like better, the Pho or the tofu Bahn Mi sandwich.
Every time I’ve dined there I’ve received efficient and gracious service from a young man named Hai Tran. He’s the 18-year-old son of owners Huynh and Tuyet Tran, and he doubles as their translator. Hai’s 21-year-old sister, Tuyen, also works at the family restaurant.
Hai, who graduated from OPRF in June, proposed the idea of the café to his mother, Tuyet, a year ago, after noticing the lack of Vietnamese cuisine in the area. At that time Hai’s father, Huynh, was still in Saigon where he also owned restaurant. Hai asked his mother, “Why not try to open one here? It might be a challenge, but we’ll learn something.” When Huynh arrived in Illinois, they agreed to go for it.
In Vietnam, opening a restaurant is a relatively expeditious venture, so the Tran family was slightly frustrated by our five-month-long, paperwork-filled process, but Hai said he encouraged his father to keep at it. The result is a cozy, bright-yellow, plant-filled café at 7237 W. Madison St. It’s filled with the delicious scent of Pho broth, which Tuyet rises early to make each day because it takes up to six hours.
Huynh, who is also an artist, designed the place to make it a cozy spot where patrons can warm up with a nice bowl of soup during the winter months. Right now, though, it’s a great place to chill out and sip bubble tea and dine on cold vermicelli noodle dishes. The kitchen staff is also really talented, and if you want some Vietnamese fare that is not on their menu you can call in advance and they’ll likely make it for you.
Hai told me that, so far, the biggest struggle has been finding servers who speak both English and Vietnamese (this is necessary to communicate with both his parents and the cooks). They’re currently shorthanded, so Hai and his sister, Tuyen, are splitting shifts at the restaurant, which is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Business has been up and down, but, as Huyn tells his son, word-of-mouth is the most vital form of advertising.
Everyone I know who’s visited Saigon Pho and Café has loved it. That group includes vegans and carnivores, foodies and picky eaters. So, check out this affordable gem that’s added to both the diversity and the wonderful fare on Madison Street by serving up some authentic Saigon cooking.
Stephanie is the author of “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” and “Ballads of Suburbia.” She’s a proud Forest Parker who holds a master’s in fine arts degree from Columbia College Chicago. She also works locally at the Beacon Pub and loves to hear from people through her Web site www.stephaniekuehnert.com.