By any reasonable measure, Sochi Saigonese’s first year was a successful one.
Over the past few months, owners and partners Chinh Pham and Son Do have received awards from Michelin (a Bib Gourmand) and Jean Banchet (for best heritage restaurant). Chicago magazine crowned it the fourth best new restaurant of the year.
This is not bad for a couple who have never run a restaurant before. Born in Vietnam, both studied finance at a college in Australia, before returning home to work for the family business Do’s. “I was a purchasing manager, keeping track of inventory,” said Chen Pham. “But it was always our dream to open a restaurant.”
But as Pham says over the phone, success was not guaranteed. “Our budget was very limited,” she said. “We are immigrants, so we had to do everything on our own to try and reduce costs.”
Pham said that in the week they opened the Lakeview neighborhood restaurant, they had $150 in the company’s account, which made her incredibly nervous.
“I knew I had to pay the staff and pay for the alcohol and the food,” she said. “I wondered how I could survive. I was so lucky.”
It’s also clear that Pham and Do don’t leave much luck. Instead, the pair focus heavily on every detail of the restaurant, from the dishes, most of which are imported from Vietnam, to the recipes.
Take the original egg roll, called ghả gi in Vietnamese. Unlike most Chicago egg rolls that are wrapped in a wheaten wrapper, these contain a thin rice paper that flakes unevenly when it meets hot oil, leaving the shells strewn with dark brown and golden yellow spots. An order of four egg rolls comes with Boston lettuce leaves, fresh basil, pickled daikon and carrots, and a sauce that balances sweetness and spicy acidity.
Take one of the wraps, wrap it in lettuce with herbs and pickles, and dip it. Each bite leads you to so many different flavors and textures that it’s almost funny to list them all here, but here are 12 in alphabetical order: aromatic, cracked, crunchy, funky, juicy, meaty, plump, salty, spicy, sour, sweet, pliable . Although I’m sure there’s more, what’s so appealing is that nothing beats the other.
Sochi isn’t the only Vietnamese restaurant in town that offers this rice-paper-wrapped fare, but there’s no other place where all the items are meticulously assembled. The restaurant is full of these little finds. It’s not a restaurant that puts you on your head with heat or heaviness. Instead, you’ll shy away from thinking about the little details, like how spring rolls come with a peanut-based sauce that trades in overt sweetness for a captivating funk. Or how every steak in this Roast Duck Salad is surprisingly tender, allowing you to enjoy crunchy crab chips and a surprisingly fluffy fish sauce dressing.
When asked how to discover the right balance of ingredients, Fam was honest. “We do it exactly the way we eat at home,” she said. “When I eat a dish, it should follow my favorite taste. I should do just that.”
The banh mi restaurant, available only for lunch, takes subtlety to a whole new level. Chicago has its fair share of satisfying Pan Mi sandwiches, but nothing where all the ingredients – pork belly, pancake, pork loaf, scallions, cilantro, radish, cucumber, mayonnaise, chili paste and Maggi sauce – are all meticulously laid out. . From start to finish, you’ll experience all the elements with every bite.
The main dishes are not as consistently appealing as the appetizers, but there are some notable features. Slab Mama Crab Fried Rice features chunks of sweet crab. It is also cooked in such a way that every grain of rice has perfect flavor and is not a little greasy. The dish is great too, thanks to a topping of bright red masago, and an assortment of fish roe.
Chili salt chicken is expertly cooked half chicken, with a slightly salty and spicy crust. It’s too bad that it’s also paired with those starchy French fries, which always remind me of Burger King. Of course, if my fellow food critic, Luisa Chu, had penned this review, she probably would have cared about it, because she loves these kinds of fries. (Like ketchup on sausage, it is often the subject of our debates between critics and critics.) Sorry, Sochi. Just luck in the lottery.
Sochi’s menu is pretty small compared to most Vietnamese restaurants in Chicago, but it’s hard not to want to be more laser focused. Pham said they included pho, which is beef broth and rice noodle soup, on the menu mostly because their customers assume that Vietnamese restaurants always serve the dish. Their version has a really salty broth with thinly sliced breast meat, but it lacks the appealing complexity and countless options to top it off at a place like Pho 5 Lua (6261 N. McCormick Blvd.). It’s still a satisfying bowl, but you can tell that the heart of the kitchen is elsewhere.
The only real sprite here is the cocktail menu. The Saigon Sling and Crazy Strawberry were very unbalanced, and I couldn’t finish either. A small wine and beer list is probably your best bet.
The dessert menu lists four options, but the two times I visited, only cheesecake was available. This turned out to be not a problem. The family recipe is delicious and creamy, making it the perfect end to any meal.
Captivating but never noisy, Sochi specializes in dishes that subtly get under your skin. My only regret is that it took me a year to visit.
1358 W Belmont Ave.
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Tribune rating: Two stars, very good
to open: From Wednesday to Saturday. lunch 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m.; Dinner 4-8 pm
the prices: starters, $10 to $18; Main courses, $18 to $32
Noise: friendly conversation
Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible, with bathrooms on the first floor
Ratings key: Four stars, superb; Excellent three stars. Two stars very good. Good one star No stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by Tribune.