Hu Tieu Mi Thap Cam

My interview with underground chef Julia Pham yesterday took place at a largely overlooked restaurant on the Vietnamese-Chinese strip in Uptown, Double Happiness at 1061 W. Argyle. It was good enough that the restaurant deserves commemoration in its own right. Which it’s never had; for all the acres of ink dedicated to our ethnic food scene, for all that Argyle-area spots like Sun Wah and Ba Le have gotten notice in mainstream publications, the only substantive discussion I could find about this place goes back to a Chowhound thread from 2003. On a street of shinier shops with neon signs, it is the definition of nondescript, a noodle joint that can be fairly described as an old folks’ diner—older staff, older clientele, and most definitely decor of an advanced age. Nothing about it says good food is inside, it could just as easily be a barber shop or a bookie joint. But we’ve been making a mistake passing it by.

Titus Wong, the primary author of that 2003 thread, drolly captures the feel which hasn’t changed a bit in 11 years:

Double Happiness falls distinctly into the greasy spoon category, as one takes in the faded wood paneling, tacky laminated tables, and sticky linoleum floor. During the warmer months, the picture is rendered complete by the spectacle of an elderly proprietor sitting at the front counter attired in a wife beater t-shirt, slippers, and long pants. He will remain etched in my memory engaged in one of two pursuits: figuring out sums on an abacus, or idly flipping a fly swatter.

He was still at that same post when we went, seemingly no older, just dressed for colder weather. Anyway, as Wong points out, the point here is chicken broth with noodles and whatever assortment of pork, seafood, fish balls and fish cakes, etc that you want to have floating in it (plus whatever from the jars on the table that you want to add, such as chiles and fried garlic). We ordered number six, the hu tieu mi thap cam, and it’s a simple but nearly perfect bowl, a clear, close to Platonic example of chicken broth with tender, precisely cooked bits of cuttlefish poking up from it. There was a flash of foodie enthusiasm earlier in the year for a Vietnamese soup place on Lawrence, New Asia, which uses freshly slaughtered chickens from an Islamic butcher next door, and that leads to a terrific bowl of soup, no question—but this one is about as good, with less artisanal fuss, I suspect.

We had one other dish that was a favorite of Julia’s, which as it turned out was also recommended in that Chowhound piece as well: number nine, the tieu chau radish cake with egg. Wong says it’s made from daikon radish. Julia thought it was turnip cake, which is a familiar sight on dim sum menus. In any case, I’ve had turnip cake, and its bitter flavor is interesting, though its austerity suggests something you might have to live on in a Danish monastery. Double Happiness’ version has that same bitter base, but otherwise it’s almost lush with its scrambled eggs and topping of scallions and crumbled bits of something (dried pork?).

Invisible as it was to non-Asians as we walked by, Double Happiness drew a steady crowd, conversing in Vietnamese, the entire time we were there, and you can see why it has lasted over two decades as a comfort-food spot for residents in the area. I’ll be back, now that it’s not invisible to me any longer, and hopefully you’ll want to see it too.