January in Chicago means there are at least four months until prime grilling season. Maybe even five, as Chicago generally goes from face-numbing frigid winter straight to swampy summer in May, with nary a nod—except for a couple of drizzly, windy days—to spring. But right now my second floor window box is covered in a couple inches of prime snow dust, my windows are fogged by a roiling swirl of flakes, and my street, thanks to our cheap mayor Richard Daley, is an unplowed mess. Breaking out the grill is about the last thing I’d do.
Still, the palate knows no season, and it’s always prime time for smoky treats. There’s no lack of spots to secure such goodies in Chicago either, but last week I was reminded of one of my favorite grilled treats at Hai Yen, a cozy and clean Vietnamese joint up in Chicago’s little Vietnam neighborhood: Tom Cuon Thit Nuong. It may sound like a Peter Piper-worthy culinary rhyme, but it's actually grilled rolls of tender beef slices wrapped around creamy shrimp. This one-bite surf and turf comes straight from the kitchen with a sweet, charred caramelized skin perfumed with honey, lemongrass, and sesame. Dip them in a fish sauce-funked ponzu-style citrus sauce, take a bite, and you may never go back to the metal kettle and briquette show again.