The Run Down

We've got a classic daytime date on the docket. We're hanging out in Uptown and ease into things at a rustic coffee shop for some good conversation over an ubae latte. Afterwards, you'll head down the street to a former bank whose second floor has been turned into a bouldering gym. Finally, if the date is still going well, the last stop is a post-gym meal at a Vietnamese restaurant where we're going to try something other than pho. Here are the details.

1. Ubae Coffee @ First Sip Cafe

2. Climb @ First Ascent

3. Noodles & Crispy Cakes @ DaNang Kitchen

1. First Sip Cafe

Along Argyle Street in Uptown, you’ll find blocks of of Southeast Asian restaurants and shops. A lot of these were started by Vietnamese immigrants who flocked to the neighborhood in the 80s and 90s to create a better life for themselves. Now decades later, a second generation of shops and restaurants are emerging from the sons and daughters of these immigrant business owners who made a home here.

First Sip Cafe is one of these second generation businesses and we’re paying a visit to kick off this date.

If you’re taking the train, you’ll find First Sip Cafe conveniently located right off the Red Line Argyle stop.  It’s on Argyle St., along the main corridor of this historical district.

This cafe is as local as it comes. Started by sisters Erin and Gigi Hoang, they grew up helping their parents run Cafe Hoang, a long running Vietnamese restaurant a few blocks away. Now they’re off on their own with their own space, and much like their upbringing, their shop blends Vietnamese and Western tastes in a beautifully rustic setting.  Worn down floor boards, dark paneled walls, and plants just about everywhere set the mood. It’s an intimate space set up to facilitate good conversation to start off your date. If I were to imagine a coffee shop on the Vietnamese countryside, this might be it.

As far as coffee drinks go, they experiment with a lot of nontraditional flavors. You’ll find things like spicy mango lattes, ubae lattes, and of course, Vietnamese iced coffee on the menu.

2. First Ascent

Now that you’re fully caffeinated, burn off some of that energy at this bouldering gym a few blocks away. We’re at First Ascent, a chain of climbing gyms started by a group of local Chicago climbers.

The gym is located in a century old building, and from the outside, it doesn’t look like a place you’d expect a climbing gym to be. If you’re thinking that this looks more like a turn of the century bank than a climbing gym, then you’d be right because it is was constructed at the turn of the century and originally housed the Sheridan Trust Bank. Good guess.

On the second floor of this building, behind all the arched windows, is where you’ll find a 9,000 square feet of climbing terrain extending up to 15 feet high.

The entrance is right beneath this awning on the first floor. Here are a few things to make note of before visiting.

– Day passes for $21 are available for non-members. Currently, they are doing 2 hour sessions that you can book in advance. Reserve here.

– This is a bouldering-only gym. That means you climb without ropes or harnesses on walls up to 15 feet high.

– They have climbing shoes that you can borrow for free.

– There are free lockers and cubbies where you can store your stuff.

Once you check-in, you can head to the second floor to start climbing. These arched windows are a relic of the original building and they line the entire length of the climbing space. As you rest between climbs, you can post up right at the windows and lookout on the neighborhood below. The North end of the gym has an incredible view looking right into the historic Riviera Theater. 

Special Nande Deal

If you’re new to climbing and more comfortable with someone to “show you the ropes”, you can do a 2 hour guided session.

You’ll get tips on climbing technique, terminology, etiquette, and safety from an expert guide.  They’ll also set you up with all the gear you need. It’s $59 for a guided bouldering session for 2, but here’s a $10 discount code: nandeclimbs. Here’s some math for you.  With the deal that comes out to $49. A regular day pass for two people is $42. You basically get an expert guide on your climb for $7. Not too bad. Details here.

3. DaNang Kitchen

After bouldering, we’re going back to Argyle St. to cap off the date at DaNang Kitchen. This is  one of the many Vietnamese restaurants in the area, but we’re here learn that Vietnamese food is more than just pho. Use what you learn in this guide to impress your date with your knowledge and understanding of the nuances of Vietnamese cuisine.   

DaNang Kitchen is named after the city Da Nang, in Central Vietnam. This particular region of Vietnam has their own culinary identity and this restaurant celebrates that. 

The restaurant is in a narrow space flanked by other Vietnamese restaurants nearby. A cozy nook looking out towards the street is a prime date spot at this a family-run operation.  You’ll find the husband and wife cooking in back while their teenage son mans the front. 

Now onto the food. This is perhaps one of the most popular dishes out of Central Vietnam, and you won’t find it in many other Vietnamese restaurants. It’s called Mi Quang, otherwise known as the DaNang Signature Noodle on their menu. To borrow some words from famed restauranteur and food personality, Guy Fieri, “Welcome to flavor town.”

This dish consists of flat rice noodles mixed with turmeric that give the noodles a distinct yellow color. The noodles are accompanied with an assortment of fragrant vegetables and herbs (cilantro, green onions, sorrel) that help balance against a savory and slightly sweet pork broth that sits at the bottom of the bowl. On top are slices of pork belly, shrimp, quail eggs, a rice cracker, and toasted almonds that round out this dish. Another food recommendation is their banh khot or crispy mini cakes. What you see above are small rice flour pancakes that are thin and super crispy. It’s a the delivery vehicle for a grilled piece of shrimp that sits inside along with other herbs. It comes with a plate of lettuce, and to eat this, you wrap each of these cakes in the lettuce and dip it into a sweet dipping sauce.

Another staple of Central Vietnamese cuisine that you’ll be hard pressed to find in other Vietnamese restaurants.

Before we end this guide, we’re leaving you with a post-meal drink. It’s this Vietnamese egg coffee. The egg coffee comes straight from the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam where it’s been a popular cafe drink since the 1950s. It’s a shot of espresso with a whipped egg sitting on top. To drink this, whisk everything together and then enjoy this velvety smooth and sweet drink.