A distinctly Asian take on neighborhood corner stores and bodegas is coming to Wicker Park. Co-founders Nate Hoops and Anthony Ngo plan to open Phodega at 1547 N. Ashland Avenue by the end of October with two versions of pho, the luscious Vietnamese noodle soup, as well as Hainanese chicken rice and a selection of Asian snacks, candy, and drinks. The space formerly housed Taco Burrito Express near the site of the forthcoming Wicker Park Hyatt hotel.
“I think the corner store is a cornerstone of Chicago culture,” Hoops said in an interview. “In almost every neighborhood, you’ll find a corner store or liquor store for snacks.”
Most Chicagoans recognize the indispensable service that bodegas provide. Usually situated on a corner and packed with a collection of useful, tasty, and sometimes surprising items, the often-crammed stores make for excellent neighborhood gathering spots, especially when they house a taqueria or sandwich counter.
Hoops and Ngo plan to carry a variety of snacks from various Asian countries that are hard to find outside of suburban Japanese market Mitsuwa or West Loop Pan Asian grocer and food court H Mart. Customers can expect crackers in flavors such as shrimp and honey butter, as well as Korean candies and Japanese Pocky.
The minimalist black-and-white tiled 1,000 square-foot space will seat around 20, Hoops said, and festive packaging will add pops of color to the shop. Bodega staples such as paper towels, over-the-counter medications like Tylenol, and RAW Black rolling papers will also be available. The pair have a sense of humor about the business and leverage snarky marketing to great effect: “Don’t try it. You won’t like it,” one social media post reads.
The co-owners will focus on two types of pho — chicken and beef — that come with many of the traditional toppings (including Thai basil and chilis, cilantro, bean sprouts, and lime) and delicate white rice noodles. Beef pho is accompanied by with meatballs, brisket, and thin slices of ribeye. Ngo, who comes from a Vietnamese family, has made pho nearly all his life. “We want to do it straightforward and traditional,” said Hoops. “Nothing fancy or fusion-y, just delicious and comforting.”
They also want to serve Hainanese chicken rice, a dish Hoops grew up eating thanks to his Singaporean mother. Phodega customers will be able to order their chicken steamed or fried. It traditionally consists of poached chicken and seasoned rice, and garnered special attention from the West when the late, great Anthony Bourdain visited Singapore’s famous Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice in 2017.
A few fresh snacks will also be on offer, such as crispy fried chicken skin (think chicharrones) and Chicago-style pizza puffs. Beverage selections will include fruit smoothies, milk teas, boba teas, and drinks such as Ramune, a popular Japanese soda that comes in a range of flavors.
Phodega is slated to launch by the end of next month. Stay tuned for news of an opening date.