Mì quảng tôm thịt, a central Vietnamese dish made from savory broth made sour by tamarind, sweetened by pineapple and tomatoes, and served with fresh rice noodles, turmeric root, pork belly, shrimp, quail eggs, and a crisp sesame rice cracker, is not typically found in Chicago, says Sydney Le, the chef and owner at DaNang Kitchen in Uptown. That was why, when she opened the restaurant in October 2019, she decided to make it her signature dish.
No other Vietnamese restaurant in the city serves it, as far as she knows. Some of her non-Vietnamese customers say they’ve eaten it before, but only on trips to Vietnam. This makes Le happy: she wants to bring something different to Argyle, which is lined with Vietnamese restaurants and grocery stores.
Because of the pandemic, DaNang Kitchen never had a proper anniversary party. But it’s going to have one now. On Friday, December 10, Le will be serving a special five-course family-style dinner to celebrate. It will not feature mì quảng, but instead several dishes that don’t normally appear on the menu: green papaya salad, rice-coconut turmeric meat cakes topped with shrimp and fish roe, sautéed head-on prawns, custard jelly, and Le’s own personal favorite dish: sweet and sour halibut soup in a clay pot, served with caramelized halibut. (She has been known to make this for customers who specially request it, though she normally uses catfish, an American substitute for Vietnamese river fish.)
Le grew up in Vĩnh Long, Vietnam, about two hours southwest of Ho Chi Minh City. Her mother worked as a street food vendor, and Le was her assistant, but most of her best food memories are associated with her grandmother, an accomplished home cook who cooked in the southern style, with more sugar and lots of vegetable garnishes. After she moved to the U.S. in 1990 in search of her father, an American soldier, Le discovered a newfound love for cooking and returned to Vietnam for culinary school.
“My grandmother passed away a little too soon,” she says, “And my mom was busy doing something else, so I was always trying to think about my grandmother’s dishes. I went back trying to find my memories. I found them.”
Le’s grandmother cooked without written recipes, and Le is still working to perfect the flavors she remembers. She’s getting closer, but she doesn’t think she’s gotten them exactly right yet. When she does, she plans to write down all the recipes for her own daughter.
Although she loved to cook for her family and friends, after culinary school, Le continued to work as a nail technician and eventually owned a salon. She decided to open a restaurant to help support her family; one of her nephews was also interested in cooking. But when the pandemic hit, she found the restaurant, which was able to stay open for takeout and catering, was doing better business than the salon. So she decided to shut down the latter and focus on food.
Most of the menu of DaNang Kitchen is comprised of dishes from the south that Le learned from her grandmother. The one exception is mì quảng, which Le learned from her husband, Sam Truong, when they first met. Truong is from central Vietnam, where the cuisine where the cuisine is more savory and incorporates more fish. “I fell in love with the food before I fell in love with him,” she jokes. Now Truong is her sous chef.
But despite her devotion to her grandmother’s renditions of traditional dishes, Le likes to put her own special modern twist on DaNang’s food. Many cooks use fish roll for their meaty cakes, or bánh khọt, but Le prefers to use shrimp. Her version of the beefy soup bún bò Huế, which she calls bún bò DaNang, omits the traditional pork knuckles. And her Vietnamese iced coffee has sea salt foam on top of the usual condensed milk.
Le plans to start a series of specials soon, a new dish every month, she says, so her customers won’t get bored. And for newer customers, “I hope some people who don’t know [those dishes] will come and try something they’ve never had before.”
DaNang Kitchen, 1019 W. Argyle Street, Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Call (773) 654-3564 to reserve a spot at the anniversary dinner.