Lanexang Restaurant–a taste of Southeast Asia
By Mike Leifheit
By Mike Leifheit
Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Norte (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit, reviews locally-owned restaurants who make it from scratch.
I am riding my 1978 Goldwing across the Morgan Street bridge. The old Wing is purring like a kitten. It is fabulous for the first part of November in Rockford, Ill. I have been riding around trying to decide where to go for lunch. I kind of feel like rice and beans, but a soup notion is overtaking me. A figure waves to me from the Mobil station at the corner of Morgan and Seminary. It is Jon Agustsson. I need gas anyway, so I turn the corner and pull in.
I pull up to the pump and put the hose in the tank of my old Wing. It is nice that a station in this neck of the woods isnt pre-pay. While I am waiting for the tank to fill, Jon comes out of the station with one of those chug bottles of chocolate milk. Wanna go have soup? I ask. Ill buy. He agrees immediately. It was that Ill buy part that got you, I say. He nods.
Jon climbs on the back of my bike, and we head down to Sixth Street and then south to Tenth Avenue. Turning right on Seventh Street at the pawnshop, we proceed south to what was the Seven-Eleven Plaza. My destination is Lanexang Restaurant. My quest is Pho.
What is Pho (pronounced like fur, as in fur coat)? Ruth Reichel (who used to write Dining Out in New York for the New York Times and is now the editor of Gourmet magazine) describes it as a salad in a bowl of soup. The broth is homemade from beef shanks. In this soup, they put the following: thinly sliced raw beef; rice noodles; beef meatballs (from the Sisvath Beef Meatball company that used to be just a few doors away but now has moved to Broadway near Kishwaukee); scallions; and assorted vegetables and flavorings. Then they bring you a plate filled to overflowing with fresh Indochinese basil, tons of bean sprouts, fresh limes, and, of course, chiles. The chiles are the type the Mexicans call Japanese, but they pronounce it hap-on-aisa.
This restaurant was first opened by the Laotian woman who originally taught me the South Water Street market, Doungsey Veravong. She had a grocery store a couple of blocks away, and she was pretty crazy, so she decided to get in the restaurant business. You have to be pretty crazy to get into the restaurant business, I know. It was a hit right from the start. Most of the customers were Thai, Laotian or Vietnamese. Most of them knew her from her grocery store. She would bring all the Southeast Asian specialty produce items from the market twice a week, and there would literally be lines when she arrived from Chicago.
Doungsey is a beautiful Laotian woman with a most engaging smile. P.J. ORourke, the American humorist, says in Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon that the Southeast Asian women are the most beautiful in the world. He wasnt being funny when he said it.
Well, back to the article. The restaurant has gone through a number of owners up to Sue Bounlutaly, the present. She is assisted by members of her family, her husband Vinale, her sisters Lah and Jan, (There goes that P.J. ORourke thing again, these girls are breathtaking. It wouldnt even matter if they had soup or not.) her big brother Thod, and his wife, Pon.
Unfortunately, Lah, my favorite, isnt here today, so Jon and I have to settle for soup. Well, were both getting a little old for that anyhow. And wonderful soup it is, everything so fresh and crunchy. What a wonderful low-fat way to eat. The broth keeps everything moist and tasty without adding tons of calories like a gravy. I squeeze in some lime, a wonderful way to bring out flavor without adding salt, and I sprinkle it liberally with the crushed red serrano pepper that is in the shaker jar on the lazy susan, with all the other wonderful condiments you can add to your soup.
Soup is not all they make here; far from it. It just happens to be my favorite. Even these soups come in many forms, chicken, seafood, etc. The spring rolls are among the best in town, and the Chicken Satay (Skewered Chicken Tenders with Peanut Sauce) is a killer.
Jon finishes off his soup as fast as I do. He takes to the chopsticks like a starving man. After lunch, he takes me back to show me his antique mansion across from the Jane Addams housing project (what used to be the old Rockford College campus before some geniuses decided to move it to the east side). He is developing this property as a school in the heart of the projects. You can see his web site at www.edenfound.org. He shows me all the rooms and the wonderful ceilings and inlaid floors. You cant do any of this at East State and Perryville. We walk around his huge expanse of a yard that overlooks the railway. The sun is shining, its 60 degrees. How wonderful to be here in Rockford on this beautiful November afternoon.
Lanexang Restaurant is located at 1207 Seventh St. Hours and days of operation: Weekdays 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Weekends 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Closed Wednesdays;