Serious Eats: Chicago
Deep Fried Chicago: Lee's Chop Suey
From Chinese to Thai to Japanese and beyond, there's no shortage of excellent Asian restaurants in Chicago and its suburbs. And as we've documented (rather extensively, I might add) here on this site, the Chinese options, particularly those fronted by Tony Hu, are at the top of the heap. But sometimes you don't want dishes celebrating the regional nuances of China; sometimes you want good old Chinese American dishes that you can drown in soy sauce and eat clumsily with chop sticks. In those moments of need, turn to Lee's Chop Suey. You get the impression that things haven't changed a bit here on Diversey since it opened in 1968, right down to the wood paneling and generically Asian light fixtures. Luckily for us, that's mostly a good thing.
The Combination Tray ($11.95) is an easy way to dive head first into the deep fryer right from the start. Clockwise from the top are Fried Shrimp, Egg Rolls, Fried Chicken, Crab Rangoon, and Fried Wontons that the nice waitress allowed me to sub out for the beef teriyaki skewers that usually round out the plate. The Fried Chicken is sliced breast meat battered in a tempura batter; while juicy, there isn't much flavor. Same goes for the Fried Shrimp. The Egg Rolls, though, are a different story. Stuffed to the gills with whole tiny shrimp, barbecue pork, and cabbage, the flavor of each component really stand out, especially the cabbage. I'd definitely get these again. Ditto on the Crab Rangoon, which are generously filled with a cream cheese and crab mixture that actually tastes like crustacean. Since the Fried Wontons are essentially wrappers folded into hats and deep fried, the Rangoon renders them redundant. Next time, I'll separate the wheat from the chaff and get an order each of the Egg Rolls and Crab Rangoon and call it a day.
The Sesame Chicken ($11.00) is as pure a distillation of the dish as I've encountered. The uniformly sized battered chicken nuggets arrive steaming to the table with little more adornment than orange sauce and a generous sprinkle of the namesake seeds. The chicken is crisp and juicy, the sauce is sweet without being cloying, and if you'd prefer yours with steamed broccoli and could stand to be without the sesame, the waitress told me that the Orange Chicken ($11.00) is the same thing.
Less successful, at least for my taste, is the Sweet & Sour Shrimp ($12.50). To be fair, I've never been much of a sweet and sour anything fan, but this dish does exactly what it sets out to do. The fried shrimp are the same as the ones in the combination tray, but pairing them with the apricot-based sauce works much better here. While the canned pineapple add a juicy burst of flavor here and there, the tomato and green pepper chunks are probably not worth your time.
The Plain Fried Rice ($7.95) isn't deep fried, but I couldn't resist ordering it because (1) it has the word "fried" in the name, and (2) growing up on food court Chinese food means that Sesame Chicken just doesn't taste as good with steamed white rice. And I'm glad I made the call, because the rice was one of the better Chinese American versions I've had. The problem with most fried rice is that it's made with too much oil, which results in a greasy pile of mush that tastes more like the wok it was cooked in than anything else. This version, although light on seasoning, featured individual grains of rice that still retained their own structure, a benchmark of properly fried rice. I was more than happy to add a bit of Kikkoman at the table on my own.
If you decide to go to Lee's Chop Suey, make sure you know what you're getting yourself into. There's no secret menu to order off of, and you won't have much luck scouring the forums for that perfect dish that only those in the know get. But there are carafes of soy sauce and pancake syrup pitchers of sweet & sour sauce and Lazy Susan topped round tables that can handle a crowd. And along with a pair of trusty chopsticks, sometimes that's all you need.
Lee's Chop Suey