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Culinary Passport to Vietnam

Des Plaines' Dung Gia is good enough to give Little Saigon a run for its money.

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Cozy and thoroughly palate-pleasing Dung Gia Authentic Vietnamese Cuisine, 1436 Miner St., more than lives up to its “authentic” moniker, serving sizzling clay pot specialties, tasty bubble teas and thirteen varieties of the popular Vietnamese noodle soup known as ph ò.

Formerly the Annam Café in Evanston, Dung Gia moved to Des Plaines a few years ago and remodeled early in 2010. It now boasts a pleasantly decorated medium-sized space filled with plants, ceramic figurines and an aquarium filled with bug-eyed goldfish. The staff as well is remarkably friendly and willing to offer suggestions and spiciness warnings to Vietnamese food rookies.

With its characteristic blend of cold fresh herbs and extremely hot spices and use of ingredients such as fish and oyster sauces Vietnamese food is extremely healthy but may not be to everyone’s taste. The staff, of course, knows best and they seem very receptive to adding and deleting ingredients.

With most lunch specials priced at just over $6, Dung Gia is also an affordable way to sample Vietnamese cuisine, at least during lunch. The dinner menu is reasonable but by no means cheap, though Dung Gia seems to justify this by offering extremely fresh ingredients.

As with most Vietnamese restaurants the appetizers should not be skipped. Staples include chà gìo, similar to a Chinese eggroll but not as greasy, and gòi cuôn, a shrimp, mint and glass noodle spring roll wrapped in translucent rice paper and served with peanut sauce. For more refined palates there are starters like chim cùt quay, roasted quail in lime sauce, or a Vietnamese pancake (again served with lime sauce) neither of which I had the pleasure to try.

 Some of the salads such as the papaya shrimp salad may be for more adventurous eaters, but most Vietnamese salads are extremely crisp and refreshing, incorporating mostly cucumber, cilantro and lemongrass as well as cold beef, shrimp and calamari.

For an entree I’d recommend anything steamed in a clay pot though most Vietnamese foodies like to go with the spicy or semi-spicy phò noodle soups. If you don’t mind sweating ginger for a few hours the clay-pot dish gà kho gung is a delightful, brothy mixture of onions, chicken and ginger marinated together and served sizzling.

If I go back, which I certainly plan to do, I would try the same thing with salmon steak or one of their many salads, as Dung Gia seems to give preferential treatment to seafood items and vegetables over meat. Don’t be mislead by the small size of the clay pot, Dung Gia’s entrees are filling enough, though it helps to have some spring rolls on the side and a cup of sweet Vietnamese iced coffee to wash things down.   

Dung Gia will not disappoint fans of Vietnamese food, or Southeast Asian cuisine in general, though true blue Vietnamese foodies may be a bit disappointed by their lack of b áhn mì, the baguette-based Vietnamese sandwiches. If you want to experience these incredibly tasty cucumber and chili morsels it seems you’ll still need to go into the city, specifically Uptown’s Argyle St.

For Des Plaines and the surrounding area, however, Dung Gia’s unassuming Miner St. storefront is a more than satisfying suburban alternative to Chicago’s famous Phò Central, the Mecca of Southeast Asian cuisine known as Little Saigon (Argyle St. between Sheridan and Broadway). Every bit as authentic, tasty and dedicated to fresh ingredients as your average Argyle St. eatery Dung Gia is a tasty, affordable and local portal to Vietnam’s alluring and refreshing cuisine.

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