An Ode to “Little Vietnam”


Chicago’s reinvention, which inspired the name “Second City,” became a safe haven for European immigrants in the early 20th century. As the city achieved its international status, it would welcome a flood of new immigrants from Latin America and Asia in the last 50 years, helping to make Chicago as one of the most diverse cities in the world. For one neighborhood in the Chicago north side, “New Chinatown” began as a Chinese community but would soon transition over with the influx of Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian immigrants (I.E. Cambodians, Laotian, and Thai) into the neighborhood. There, it would introduce the Southeast Asian culture to the city, and as a destination for Pho enthusiasts.  

 

For my family, they made Chicago its home after they were forced to flee Vietnam after the war. They found a Vietnamese community in the “New Chinatown” area. Located on Argyle Street and Broadway in the Uptown neighborhood, “New Chinatown” would become the “home away from home” to many of the Vietnamese immigrants that came to Chicago in the late 70s through the 80s.

 

Growing up in the western suburbs, my brothers and I moaned whenever we had to go shopping with our parents on Argyle Street. In the days of pre-smartphone and mp3s of the early 90s, there was nothing less exciting than being trapped in the backseat of a car, listening to emotional Khmer ballads, and having to endure more of it when we were stuck in Chicago traffic. We dreaded the boring 1 hour commute on the Eisenhower expressway to get there. We then go through downtown Chicago which led us by Buckingham Fountain and into the scenic Lake Shore Drive which is parked right next to Lake Michigan. As kids, the city never seemed to excite us. It became merely routine, and didn’t appeal to us the way the Brookfield Zoo or the Field Museum did. As we arrived, my dad would spend nearly an hour trying to find parking in that condensed, crowded street of Argyle. Never mind the fact that he never wanted to spend an extra few bucks in that parking lot down the block.

 

Gazing through the aisles of the Tai Nam grocery store, I see a tub full of live blue crabs living out its final days. Customers would use the tongs to pick out the crabs, but they would cling on to each other in its final moments of solidarity. Passing by the meat section, I would hear the sound of machinery cutting through the meat and bones as customers eagerly wait for their freshly cut order at the counter.

 

I eagerly walked towards the dessert section, and grabbed a handful of packaged white rice cakes, which are in its rectangular, glutinous form, fried sesame seed balls with the red bean paste inside, the green and yellow striped mung bean snacks, among others. I spotted the sweet soybean milk, the CoCo Rico drinks (coconut flavored soda), and grabbed a couple of those, much to the chagrin of my mom who was always cautious about how much sweets that my brothers and I would take in. At the very least, she understood that these sugary-filled delights would keep us occupied during the long trip home.

 

On the intersection of Argyle and Broadway lies Ba Le Sandwich. In the early 90s, it was a classic hole-in-the wall joint with its blue exterior store sign, and inside, was its grimy, rough, and dingy appearance. Despite its unappealing physical nature, Ba Le had kind of a charm that was found in their food. The Vietnamese sandwiches called Banh Mi, partly inspired by the French during its colonialism of Vietnam uses its French bread and foie gras on top of the pork, ham, soaked onions and carrots, spreaded out with mayonnaise, jalapeno, and cilantro. It was oooooh soooo tasty. As a kid, I rejected nearly every Vietnamese dish including pho, but those banh mi sandwiches were the first Vietnamese food I ever love, and continued to love as I have been reclaiming part of my family heritage that was lost under the Western assimilation shuffle.

 

My mom would buy her Vietnamese cassettes at Trung Tin, which was one of the more well-known Vietnamese music stores in the nation. The vocal sounds of Che Linh and Huong Lan often blasted into the store, and eventually into my parents’ stereo in the family room. My dad would buy his Khmer cassette tapes at a Cambodian music store that was located just under the Argyle CTA red line viaduct, and carry on a long-winded conversation with the owner.

 

As we departed from Argyle Street, we would drive past the abandoned Uptown Theatre and the still-existing Riviera and Aragon Ballroom, and head out to Montrose Beach to sit down by the lake as the paleta men walked by us.

 

We would happily munch on our sandwiches as my brothers and I would conveniently forget the groaning and moaning that we carried with us during the ride to Uptown until we have to do it again next weekend.

 

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