Lunch in the Loop: Hot Woks Cool Sushi
Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
I've always been wary of restaurants with clever names. Is the allure of punny food names just a way to distract from a sub-par kitchen? We have our fair share of them In Chicago, including Chubby Wieners up on Western (no kidding). Hot Woks Cool Sushi is another, and one of its four outposts happens to be in the Loop near my office. Of course, if I had my choice, I'd name a restaurant "These Boots Were Made for Wokkin'" or "Wok the Line," so I wouldn't be any better.
When I showed up, a big sign outside the restaurant proudly proclaimed, "It's not that Asian kids are Smart. It's because Smart People eat Asian food!" (Apparently they even trademarked that phrase.) Trust me, not all Asian kids are smart. In fact, the Korean man-child writing this very article (me) would probably fail kindergarten if he had to take it over again.
After scanning over the menu, two things caught my eye: the crab rangoon ($5.25) and the untraditional egg rolls ($4.25). I've always had a soft spot for crab rangoon, even though I'm painfully aware that they are a menace to society, sort of like the Fast and Furious movie franchise. But these are easily some of the best I've ever had, filled generously with a mixture of crab meat (likely the imitation stuff), chives, and carrots. They come out piping hot, the fried wontons crisp and slightly greasy, with a soft bundle of savory crab and cream cheese beneath the top of the crunchy little purse. Dipped into the sweet and sour sauce, these are a guilty pleasure for me.
The "untraditional" egg rolls are named as such because they're filled with Italian sausage along with a caramelized onion stuffing, served with a side of sweet and sour sauce, and some wasabi mayo. The big question: Does the Italian sausage change the fate of egg rolls forever? Unfortunately, the answer is a disappointing no. If I hadn't known that it was Italian sausage beforehand, I wouldn't have noticed it at all—there wasn't much, if any, fennel flavor that I could discern. It tasted like a regular fast food Chinese egg roll filled with onion, cabbage, carrots, and meat. The wasabi mayo doesn't add much to the show; it basically tastes like a slightly milder Chinese mustard diluted in mayo.
I tend to believe that rainbow rolls ($10.95) are a good litmus test of fish quality, considering you get a mix of fish slices over a California roll. And in this case, the quality of fish is decent. The salmon had woefully little marbling, but the tuna was tender and velvety, and the escolar was rich. I want to note that there aren't too many places to get affordably priced sushi in the Loop, so this does fill the need if you're craving sushi.
Shrimp in lobster sauce ($8.95) is sort of a misnomer; there is no actual lobster in the recipe. The name comes from the fact that this type of sauce is normally supposed to be served with lobster. It's made mainly of black bean sauce, velvety eggs, and pork. Unfortunately, this version is extremely salty, almost to the point where it's difficult to eat even with a lot of white rice. For the price, there were plenty of large shrimp, but they were slightly overcooked.
I feel like this restaurant is suffering from an identity crisis. The restaurant space is tall airy, and designed with a modern Asian flair, but the menu wants to cater to everyone's tastes. The last thing I saw before I left was a confusing little table topper that said "Keep Calm and Dragon On," and I think that pretty much sums up how I feel.
Hot Woks Cool Sushi
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.