Focus on Mid-Town: The Hai Quynh

Next to downtown, my favorite area of Rockford is the Mid-Town District, specifically that historic stretch of Seventh Street that parents have told their children is home to prostitutes, drug dealers and worse. It probably is, but Seventh Street would not have its notorious reputation if more area residents took the time to visit the array of retail shops, restaurants and locally-owned businesses in that “dangerous neighborhood.” With more local foot traffic of folks NOT soliciting sex-for-money and easy crack rocks, not only would the businesses thrive, but I’m sure the crime and sordid activity would slow down quite a bit.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to write a series devoted entirely to my favorite businesses in the Mid-Town District, starting with the new Hai Quynh, formerly known as Nu-Y’. This Vietnamese/Chinese restaurant has both authentic and slightly Americanized menu items to fit the local palette. The prices are reasonable, although dinners can get up there a little.

One of my favorite items is their steam-fried dumplings, which consist of a ground pork and vegetable stuffing encased in a light flour dough, and steam fried delicately until crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. These are served with green onions and soy sauce, and are the perfect beginning to the meal. I’m fairly sure they also serve a sweet and sour sauce, but since the diabetes has prevented me from ever trying that sort of thing, I’m not sure what to tell you about it.

The method of steam frying is one of my favorites, and also fairly difficult for first-timers. There is a tendency for people to over-brown the dumplings, or add too much water, which makes them tough. I have never had an ill-made gyojo dumpling at the Hai Quynh.

Next, I like to order their lemon grass chicken or their orange beef. The servings are perfect; not too much and not too chinzy, and all orders are served on a bed of shredded lettuce and cabbage. The freshness of the greens complements the strong flavors of the dishes; especially the orange beef because it’s very sweet and spicy.

The decor of the Hai Quynh is neat, tidy and clean. It doesn’t look terribly remarkable, nor is it covered in any particular Vietnamese or Chinese prints as is typical with many of the Asian restaurants in town. One can tell that it is a place to go for families and businessmen in the area; no glitz, no glamour—just wholesome, pleasant food. Sometimes I wish they’d turn off the music, because it’s usually crummy American pop tunes like songs by Celine Dion or the worst of Elton John, played on a Chinese violin (tee-wu) or bamboo flute with synthesizers. But it’s inoffensive and never too loud.

They have a great deal of different fish and seafood items prepared in traditional Vietnamese manner, which has a lot of French influence in preparation.

Hai Quynh is one of the few places where I will eat fish. The crab is incomparable, and the catfish in a clay pot is tender, sweet and succulent. The red snapper with bell-pepper “salsa” is addictive, as it is refreshingly crisp in flavor and delicate in texture.

Due to the strong French presence in Vietnam, the cuisine of the region has been affected deeply. I have found that more than any other Asian cuisine, Vietnamese uses a lot of white wine (mostly rice wines, but occasionally they will use a dry sherry or a dry chardonnay) to de-glaze meats or to mix into sauces with other ingredients.

They offer weekly lunch specials that usually include fried rice of some sort, soup, an egg roll and tea for $5.50. It’s much healthier and tastier than Happy Wok, and you can be assured your money is going to a locally owned, locally operated business and not some faceless corporation. I have never tried their fried rice, egg rolls or crab rangoon because those items are usually the same everywhere, unless the restaurant providing them is exceptionally wonderful (the Phai Nam on Broadway really offers magnificent fried rice, and there’s just something different about their crispy fried egg rolls). However, if those common menu items are prepared with the same care as the other dishes I’ve tried, then it is certain they are clean, fresh and palatable.

Oh, I almost forgot—the wait staff at Hai Quynh is phenomenal. They are pleasant, polite and attentive, which is a rarity in town. They don’t attack you constantly for more water, napkins, etc., but hang back until they see a break in conversation and a polite moment to step in and see if you require anything else.

This little Vietnamese restaurant is an ideal haven for shoppers and workers in the Mid-Town District, and deserves more attention from those who have never been. The menu is large; the food is clean and tasty, though exotic; the atmosphere is tranquil and serene, and the prices won’t empty your pockets. For two people eating a large dinner, I would say $15-$25 should cover it.

The Hai Quynh is at 324 Seventh St. (it can be easily seen by the sign that has their name scribbled across it in what looks like brush stroked characters, and decorated with little palm trees). Hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and carry-out is available.

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