I was excited to see the opening of Strings Ramen in Chinatown just a few doors down from The Phoenix Room. I got even more excited when I saw the menu only has four bowls of ramen on it, because I'd rather see a place with a few items it does well rather than a billion things it does a mediocre job with (I'm looking at you, Cheesecake Factory).
Chinatown, South Side
By the time the cook is done hand-pulling the dough, he can run his fingers through it, but not before he's played it like an accordion, twisted it like a jump rope, and swung it like a sword.
The last place you expect to find seasonal variation is in Chinese restaurants. It does happen, but to the casual observer, it's the same bell peppers and bok choy month in and month out. So I was immediately curious when Cai, a big dim sum hall in Chinatown, had pumpkin congee on its menu.
If you're hankering for a Sunday morning meal, and you just can't stomach the notion of syrup-soaked griddle cakes, dim sum is the way to go, and in Chicago it doesn't get much better than Cai.
Sticking under the $10 mark helped narrow the list down to the truly cheap, and I think it is better for it. These are the dishes to look for in Chinatown if you are really looking for a bargain.
Culled from a dozen or so trial and error trips, the following dishes represent sure-fire hits when planning a trip to Lao Hunan. Admittedly, this is not a list of the most obscure, most adventurous dishes on the menu. Instead, it represents a palate-challenging (as opposed to alienating) crash course on dishes guaranteed to result in return visits.
Duck chins are tough to eat, because there's just not that much meat on them, so dismantling the jaw and chewing on the bits results in a mess. I like to think of it as aggressively making out with a duck, except at the end, you eat its face.
I've tried my fair share of fried shell-on shrimp, but all I ever ended up with were impenetrable pieces of shell lodged in the back of my throat. But if done right, like the version served here, the shells transform into an extra crunchy casing, which shatter dramatically when you bite in.
Mai-tou (known mostly as mantou) are fried buns that look and taste an awful lot like doughnut holes. They are served with a side of sweet and syrupy condensed milk, which affixes itself so well to the mai-tou that it almost resembles Elmer's Glue (in a tasty way, of course).
There's great food everywhere you look in Chinatown, so where do you start? This year I decided to eat at as many of the non-Tony Hu Chinatown restaurants as I could. And there are a lot of them.
Though we'd like to see more great Chinese restaurants around Chicago, it's great to realize how many options there truly are. We asked our contributors to pick out their favorite, and of the eight replies, seven of them were different.
Located off the busy strip of Old Chinatown, Go 4 Food is an oft-recommended non Tony Hu spot. This is an important distinction when trying to branch out in the area: the utter abundance of restaurants here makes finding a good one like the proverbial needle.
Sometimes a dish's name is so ambiguous you have no clue what it would look or taste like. Other times it so perfectly sums up the dish that nothing is left to the imagination.
Back in January, I spent half of the month attempting to eat at every single one of Tony Hu's restaurants in Chicago's Chinatown. But he does not rest, and since then he's opened up two more projects. I figured it was time to update my Chinatown-focused post with more picks.
Purple Chinese eggplant is cut into wide batons, coated in a salty and spicy tempura-style batter, fried to a crisp, and tossed with dried red chilies and slivered green onions. The eggplant holds its shape surprisingly well, though each bite gives way to a smooth and creamy center.
Sure, I was in Sweet Station in Chicago's Chinatown eating a Portuguese Pork Chop Sandwich ($3.95), but after one bite I was transported immediately to Madison Square Park in New York. Hang with me.
Not known as the best option in a neighborhood full of them, Joy Yee has a secret weapon that is almost impossible to deny: this place cares about blended fruit drinks. In fact, the massive restaurant even has a smoothie station walk-up window to help deal with the intense crush for the frozen delights.
Large, irregular chunks of breaded and fried chicken, barely charred green and red bell peppers, crunchy baby corn, a few dried red chilies for good measure, all swimming in a viscous pepper seed specked brick red sauce. Spooned over the accompanying steamed rice, the dish was comforting in it's familiarity, but self assured in its preparation. This was no ordinary carry-out General Tsao's Chicken.
Choosing my favorite dishes from Tony Hu's restaurants was not an easy thing to do, especially since there were about a dozen dishes not featured here that almost made the cut. But the following dishes are the ones that I can't stop dreaming about.
Take a look at our food resolutions for 2012, and then let us know yours. Are there any cuisines that you'd like to feast on or any neighborhoods you can't wait to explore? Let us know!