For a proper taste of Midwest America, snag a table at Windy City Diner
It maybe fall in Vietnam, but walk into the Windy City Diner (88 Duong So 23 (Street 23), Tan Quy, D7), and you’ll think you’re at a late-summer barbecue back in the US. In this quiet corner of District 7, chef and owner Gabe Boyer has created an all-American menu of sandwiches, sausages, burgers and steak, paying tribute to the cuisine of Chicago, Illinois. Grab a seat outdoors in the shade, pat the two dogs who are lazing in the sun, and order a plate of American history.
The city of Chicago has always been a foodie destination. The name itself comes from a Native American word for wild garlic, which grew on the shores of Lake Michigan. The cool summer breeze that blows off this lake is how Chicago got its famous nickname, The Windy City. Chicago food is known for being hearty—grilled meat, lots of cheese and sauces, thick slices of bread. It’s the kind of food we associate with baseball, Norman Rockwell and everything else uber-American. And, as is true of many great things, the food Chicago is known for was brought to the US by hardworking immigrant families. In fact, the total population of Chicago in 1900 was 77 percent first- or second-generation European immigrants. Many came from Germany, Italy, Ireland and Poland, carrying their delicious recipes with them.
At Windy City Diner, this cross-cultural collaboration continues in the excellent hot dogs, which are made specifically to Boyer’s recipe by a German sausage maker in Vietnam. After dithering between the New York Dog and the Chicago Dog (different toppings for different cities), we ordered the Maxwell Street Polish (VND150,000).
This Polish-style smoked sausage arrived slathered in mustard, scattered with onion and pickles, and nestled in a fresh baguette. Any doubts we had had about a hot dog being enough for a meal vanished as we admired the perfectly seared kielbasa, and the generous side of fries. The crisp fries go well with the bottle of ketchup on the table, but according the the menu “If you want ketchup on your hot dog, you have to put it on yourself. Ketchup on a hot dog is a sacrilege!” – this must be a Chicago thing. We New Yorkers might disagree, but we refrained from using the red stuff. The best time to taste Boyer’s hot dogs is during the Sunday Sausage Fest from 4-9pm, when all hot dogs are VND40,000, and the Polish or Italian sausages are VND60,000.
Speaking of New York, we couldn’t wait to try the Reuben nuggets (VND100,000). One bite into a golf-ball sized nugget reveals a molten core of Swiss cheese, wrapped in sauerkraut and homemade corned beef, then rolled in rye breadcrumbs and fried. The nuggets come with a saucer of homemade thousand island dressing. It’s hard to explain just how good they are. You’ll have to taste one yourself.
The Windy City Diner is an homage to Boyer’s hometown. The flag of Chicago decorates the menu, and its sports teams’ logos are printed on the ceiling. So we figured we better try a Chicago-style shaved Italian roast beef sandwich (VND150,000). The thinly-sliced beef was tender and juicy, tucked in a baguette with sautéed bell peppers and giardinera. This last ingredient is a salty-spicy mix of pickled hot peppers, celery and cauliflower, famous in Italian-American cooking. You can order the sandwich “dry” or “juicy,” in which case it will be dunked in spicy Italian beef jus. We went for the immersive experience.
This kind of food really goes well with a cold glass of pale ale. When we visited, Windy City had just started selling beers by a new local brewery called Mekong Brewing Company. We shared a 640ml bottle of their Blue Elephant IPA (VND110,000). It’s brewed with hops from the Pacific Northwest, and they give the beer a wonderful fruity complexity with just the right edge of bitterness. Better yet, a portion of the proceeds go to help endangered Asian Elephant. Windy City has a happy hour from 4-7pm every day. You can get craft beers for VND40,000, or all the Tiger you can drink for VND120,000.
IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN
TEXT BY SONIA GREGOR AND MARTIN ZORRILLA