The six way intersection of Broadway, Clark, and Diversey with its wealth of flashing marquees and scrolling advertising signs, looks like a mini-Times Square. Add the throngs of shoppers and impossible parking and it's pure madness. Hai Yen with soft lights, twinkling red glass votives, cherry wood accents and beige walls is the perfect Zen respite to this mania. Eschewing typical decor like black lacquer and Asian accents, the whole place has a warm modern vibe. Hanging lights, which look like candles suspended in glinting soap bubble globes, cast shadows on the red granite bar. A single arresting painting of a modern Vietnamese woman in contemplation is the only piece of art to grace the walls.
The original Hai Yen was always one of the classier joints on Argyle, and as such, it attracted "curious white folk" more than its grungier neighbors. Still, the menu was full of goodies like bible tripe, banana blossom salad and lotus root for adventurous eaters. The new storefront has made some concessions to its tonier Lincoln Park surroundings, and scaled down the menu to focus on beef and seafood options familiar to American palates.
Still, at the Clark Street spot, Pho Tai Nam is like the Vietnamese version of chicken noodle soup. It warms the body, soothes during sickness, and satisfies the soul. It's a tasty conglomeration of hearty cuts of beef brisket, eye of round steak, rice noodles, and scallions floating in a rich beef broth. Suon Bo Nuong, tender beef short ribs marinated in soy, honey, shallots, and garlic, are similar to Korean Bulgogi, but more tender with a simple, sweet flavor. Appetizers range from $4-$9, and entrees from $4.50-$20.
Average cost: $10-$20
Centerstage Reviewer: Michael Nagrant