Made in Uptown: Pho Xe Lua

Uptown’s Argyle area is a well-known destination for authentic and affordable international food with dozens of eateries packed in just a few blocks. Of these, Pho Xe Lua is a long-standing favorite that, despite its humble appearance, serves a vast menu that includes many vegan dishes. Uptown United spoke with Pho Xe Lua’s owner, Nga Ly about her long history on Argyle and what makes her dishes stand out.

Nga’s family were restaurateurs in Vietnam, so opening a restaurant was part of her American Dream. She came to the States as a refugee, one of the thousands of “boat people” who fled Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon. She and her older sister fled Can Tho, a city in the Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam in 1982 and was sponsored to live in Chicago soon after. She, like thousands others, settled in Uptown, in part drawn to its affordability and robust network of social service agencies. Nga then enrolled in Truman College’s ESL classes, found work in a factory as an assembler and, after carefully saving up throughout much of the 1980s, earned enough to open a store at Argyle and Winthrop called Hong Kong Fashion in 1989. But opening a restaurant was the ultimate goal and thus in 1990, she opened Pho Xe Lua.

Of course pho, the Vietnamese beef noodle soup famous for its long-simmered broth, is a specialty here. Xe lua means train and, among Vietnamese restaurants, there is a tradition of bragging about who can offer the largest bowls of pho. In effect, Pho Xe Lua advertises that their bowls are as big as a train!

Aside from other classics such as banh mi, rice places and hot pot, other specialties include savory mini-pancakes Banh Khot, snail and noodle soup Bun Oc, and much more. Having international grocery stores nearby helps source fresh ingredients from around the world for the dishes.

But there’s plenty here even for vegetarians, as the menu includes a full page packed with mostly-vegan dishes. This is because, even though Vietnamese cuisine is largely meat-heavy, Buddhist-Vietnamese food is all meat-free. And it so happens that Buddhist-style dishes are another specialty at Pho Xe Lua. Nga says she researched these recipes, honed the techniques, and even went to nearby temples such as Ravenswood’s Quang Minh Temple to get them just right. The Buddhist techniques focus on conscious eating with no preservatives and use ingredients chosen for positive qualities that may benefit one’s health. This also means that you wont find onion or garlic in these dishes, as their pungent smell is said to disrupt meditation.

And even though many of the area’s Vietnamese people are aging, she remains hopeful that the area can regain the vibrancy it experienced in the 1990s and 2000s. She says initiatives such as the Argyle Night Market have provided a notable boost in business, and is exactly the kind of programming that brings in additional tourism and visitors from other neighborhoods, while helping with word of mouth. Meanwhile, to attract more customers Nga is envisioning improved décor inside the restaurant, façade improvements like new lighting, and more of an online presence to keep up with the times.

Nga’s dream now is for the Argyle area to retain its Vietnamese, Asian Identity in the future. So bring a friend, stop in, and help keep Argyle’s character strong – one bowl of pho at a time.