Over the years, I have collected lots of recipes for chicken soup, and all of them are getting dog-eared during this long and germ-filled winter. There is no hard evidence that this "Jewish penicillin" can cure the common cold, but it seems to comfort those afflicted, except maybe the cook.
While I was standing feverish and bleary-eyed over a steaming soup kettle the other day, coughing children at my feet moaning for the last matzo ball, I knew I had reached the end of my patience, if not my card file. There must be another remedy or at least comparable comfort to get our family through the rest of "cold season."Remembering a friend's recommendation to try Cafe Anh Hong, a recently opened little Vietnamese and Chinese restaurant on South State Street, I bundled up the healthy half of the family to get a take out order and sample a bowl of noodles during the wait.
Cafe Anh Hong is a neatly appointed, brightly lit eatery with red linen tablecloths and a few pieces of Oriental art on the sparsely decorated white walls. On both our visits, the clientele has been mostly Vietnamese families and a few other diners, all sampling, at least in part, bowls of noodles.
Our waiter had a difficult time explaining some of the items on the menu, but when we pointed to what some of the other customers were having, he understood our request. He smiled enthusiastically and let us know we had made a good choice.
There was no question that the different bowls of soup at Cafe Anh Hong will sustain a hungry diner, let alone an ailing one. The bowls are huge, brimming with broth and filled with noodles. There are at least two dozen to choose from, including rice, malony (a clear, bean thread-like rice noodle), egg, and vermicelli. The prices are around $3.50 and include a plate of fresh garnishes such as mung bean sprouts, wedges of lime, slices of jalapeno pepper and a pungent mint, to add to the soup. Each table also has a full array of seasonings, such as soy sauce, a saltier fish oil, hoisin, and several different kinds of chili sauce to add to the soup or other dishes.
We sampled a meatball soup with rice noodles. Laced with bits of scallions, a sprinkling of freshly ground pepper and numerous chunks of meatballs (resembling more bits of bratwurst-like sausage than customary meatballs), the soup had a rich flavor. Other "pho" or rice noodle selections include raw beef, beef ball as well as a combination of meats.
The assorted seafood and meat soup was a bit milder, topped with a fried shrimp, crunchy won ton, bits of meat and a few bits of a chewy seafood, which I guessed to be shellfish and roe. Again the soup had a distinctive and engaging flavor and texture. The leftovers were carted home, easily adding another meal the next day.
The appetizers in Vietnamese cooking are also worth trying. The cold egg rolls, encased in chewy rice pancakes, were filled with fresh greens and either char su pork (some of the leanest and tastiest we have tried in quite a while) or shrimp. Dunked in a variety of sauces, these are appetizing delicacies. The won-ton soup ($3.95) was also a generous serving and carefully prepared.
An order of the deep fried egg roll ($3) was good sized and the dough was thin; the filling was good, though so finely ground it was hard to distinguish the ingredients. The crab asparagus soup ($2.95) was very thick, a bit too much for our liking, but again the flavor had a distinctiveness all its own.
The more traditional Chinese style dishes we tried, such as the fried rice, beef with snow peas, as well as the chicken with straw mushrooms, all showed an attention to freshness and had light and flavorful sauces.
The moderately wide ranging menu offers several sweet and sour and spicy stir fried dishes in addition to a lengthy list of Vietnamese beverages such as plum, coconut, lychee and logan berry drinks. Iced or hot coffee and tea are served as well.
While I am not sure that all our colds have been cured as a result of our latest discoveries at Cafe Anh Hong, at least I now know of a sure fire remedy for chicken soup overload.
Cafe Anh Hong, 1465 S. State, 467-4228. Open for lunch and dinner, from 11 a.m. till 10 p.m. Closed Tuesday. Accepts checks with guarantee card.
Note: Feb. 6 is the first day of the Chinese New Year - the Year of the Snake - and it is a good time to frequent your favorite Chinese restaurant. I recommend that you gather a few of your friends and make an evening of it. Call ahead to see what specialties the kitchen is offering.
Charlie Chow, anchoring the new food court in Trolley Square, will be celebrating Chinese New Year through the month of February with fireworks and traditional lion dances on Feb. 6, 8, 14, 20 and 22. The special dinner ($10.95) includes wintermelon soup, rice paper spring roll, jade tree chicken, szechuan beef, sweet and pungent halibut, black bean ribs, steamed rice and chocolate dipped fortune cookie.