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Pub Grub Gives Way to Pho as Vietnamese Food Takes Over Lincoln Square

By Patty Wetli | March 20, 2015 5:38am
 Little Vietnam on Lawrence Avenue
Little Vietnam on Lawrence Avenue
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LINCOLN SQUARE — A "Little Vietnam" has recently cropped up on Lawrence Avenue, which might surprise folks who think of Lincoln Square cuisine as synonymous with bars and grills.

But a deep dive by DNAinfo Chicago into data from the review site Yelp reveals that factoring out burgers, pizza and fast food, Asian restaurants are far more prevalent in the Square than the rest of the city.

The stretch of Lawrence Avenue between Rockwell and the Chicago River is now home to four Vietnamese joints, two of which opened in 2014.

Torrance Ly, owner of LC Pho at 2739 W. Lawrence Ave., said he was drawn to the area after witnessing the success of Nhu Lan Bakery, 2612 W. Lawrence Ave., which does a brisk business in bánh mì sandwiches.

"The more Vietnamese restaurants, the more people are going to come," said Ly.

Nhu Lan and LC Pho (initially called LD Pho) are joined by New Asia, 2705 W. Lawrence Ave., and Cafe Huong, 2711 W. Lawrence Ave., which formerly operated as a pool hall under the same name before converting to a restaurant.

Ly has earned raves for his pho, pronounced "fuh," a broth-based dish he said is as ubiquitous in Vietnam as hamburgers are in the U.S.

Huge pots holding 15 gallons of either chicken, beef or vegetarian stock simmer in the kitchen.

"We cook the broth at least six hours," Ly said.

He opened LD Pho 14 months ago with business partner Liu Dang, who has since moved on to a new venture. The name change to LC Pho is a nod to Ly's other enterprise, Lee Concessions, a familiar name to anyone who's eaten at a street fest in Chicago.

Though he runs the two businesses quite differently — "The restaurant is all about quality, festivals are all about production," Ly said — his signature street food item, grilled chicken on a stick, might eventually appear on LC Pho's menu.

Born in Vietnam to Chinese parents, Ly moved to Chicago in 1980. After graduating from Senn High School and the Illinois Institute of Technology with a "double E" degree in electrical engineering in 1989, Ly moved to Pennsylvania to take a job with Westinghouse.

It was there that he opened his first restaurant.

"All my life I was involved with food," either working as a bus boy or waiter, he said. "Basically I could not get away from food."

He returned to Chicago in 1996 after deciding to give up his day job in favor of his passion for cooking.

"I thought, 'Do one thing and be good at it,'" Ly said.

Service is as important to Ly as the quality of his dishes, he said, particularly given that only 20 percent of his customers are Vietnamese.

Ly takes care to cater to patrons' different tastes, which vary by culture. Fat is skimmed from the broth out of deference to calorie-conscious Americans, for example.

He also offer diners the option of chicken purchased from Aden Live Poultry, just down the block at 2731 W. Lawrence Ave., knowing that Latinos and Asians are more comfortable with the concept than his white clientele, who tend to choose chicken breast, he said.

And while pho may be as common as grilled cheese in Vietnam, Ly said he recognizes that his menu might intimidate those experiencing the cuisine for the first time.

"If I know you're new, we give you attention," he said. "We're not going to leave you alone."

DNAinfo's Yelp research compared the predominance of specific types of restaurants in a given neighborhood to their representation in the city as a whole.

In Lincoln Square, Korean restaurants are found 1,124 percent more than in the rest of Chicago, Thai 689 percent more, Vietnamese 533 percent more, Japanese 450 percent more and Mediterranean 413 percent more.

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