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Little Saigon, Uptown

#6: Hoa Nam Grocery

I don’t love you anymore 

It’s just that simple

No, no, no, not like before

Such a shame, dirty shame

— I Don’t Love You Anymore // Teddy Pendergrass

This is my breakup song with wheat and everything it’s in. I’m singing it on the street as I pass by Jimmy John’s when I’m starvin’. I’m singing it when I have to pass up goodies at parties or dining out. About three weeks ago, I got clued in that I might have a gluten allergy when I ate a spelt sandwich and fell into a coma-like itis state. We’re not talking Thanksgiving-itis here. Until I get tested for food allergies, I’m staying away from the stuff, which has proven to be good energy wise. Now this means grocery shopping at (my) Whole (unemployment) Paycheck is gonna have to happen more and plus side trips to Chinatown/Little Saigon. Like the character Shug from “The Color Purple” who yelled about needing a man, I needs me my pasta and carbohydrates.

After checking out Old World Market, I headed down the block to Little Saigon. I discovered that Vietnamese dishes use a lot more rice based noodles than Chinese dishes. Oh Happy Day. Hoa Nam Grocery, like most Chicago Asian markets are, er, lacking in the shine department. You’re not getting a lot of the corporate showiness, just the facts, ma’am, just the facts. But you have to know the facts before you go in. I like to delude myself in to thinking most of these are just remakes of wet markets from their native countries, but  I did a quick search on the City of Chicago’s Food Protection Division website for the store. And no data was listed for any current inspections at the time of posting. Nor did I find data for any of the stores I’ve reviewed before. Who knows what they’re doing down there in those patronage jobs. But I digress.

No dead smells assaulted my nose when I entered Hoa Nam but I did spy boxes of veggies on the floor. Green and white eggplants and a few other UFOs (unidentifiable fruit objects). As I walked through the spacious but dingy aisles not too many things stood out for me. All the basics for Asian cooking ( soy sauce, chilli sauce, dried fungus mushrooms, etc). But I did notice they offered 11 soup base flavors. Not being fluent in anything related to Vietnamese cooking, I’m wondering why do you need 11 soup bases given Americans have three — chicken, chicken and chicken. Okay, beef. Then I came across this thing called Vanilline. I’m like WTF? So, Wikipedia tells me that it’s

It is the primary component of the extract of the vanilla bean. It is also found in roasted coffee[1] and the Chinese red pine. Synthetic vanillin, instead of natural vanilla extract, is sometimes used as a flavoring agent in foods, beverages, and pharmaceuticals.” 

The whole article went all Alton Brown on me and shit, so I continued with my Google searches to understand in real but simple terms what the stuff is. After looking at 10 pages of nothing on Google, I came to the conclusion that it’s a powder form (natural and synthetic) of vanilla and it’s used in cooking to substitute using the real expensive-ass stuff. Never did find a Thai or Vietnamese recipe calling for it. But did see that it’s used in Thai Iced Coffee.

I also came across something called soy paste and evidently it’s used in Korean dishes, which I haven’t eaten much to date.

Anyhoo, the gold mine for me was the noodle section. I counted about 40 choices of rice noodles aka rice sticks (Vermicelli, linguine, fettuccine and angel hair-styles. Writer’s note 8/17 — they also have macaroni and shell-shaped pastas) and rice flake noodles, which look like tortilla chips. I’m actually tempted to try to see if soaking them and then frying would make a good tortilla substitute. (Blood Food Diet prohibits corn for my type, fuck!) Cooking with rice noodles doesn’t produce the same result as regular good ole wheat pasta (same goes for bread, ugh) but it still lets one indulge. At least in your head.

It’s great to find alternatives to food allergies but I envision this maybe being a bit hard on the budget and personal time management, *snort*, which constitutes making sure I have enough time to watch my current Korean drama and dealing with the restrictions of CTA services, which makes getting somewhere soooo daymn slow. So the single gal’s plan is to budget for bulk. It’s certainly in going to cut down on having to go to Whole Foods (8 oz of brown rice pasta for $2.99 Lundberg’s vs $1.99 for Asian store rice noodles).

Hoa Nam // 1101 W. Argyle // Chicago // (773) 275-9157

Links on using rice noodles in dishes.

How to cook and use rice noodles

The best ways to cook rice noodles 

Rice noodle recipe round up –Gluten Goddess

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About Author

A visual journalist living in Chicago.

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