With the start of the Chinese New Year (Year of the Dragon, by the way) I realized that I had the perfect excuse to dive head first into my 2012 resolution: to eat more Chinese food. At first, the plan was to visit as many of the top restaurants in Chinatown as I could and report back on my favorite dishes. But I quickly realized one stubborn fact: there were too many Chinese restaurants to visit. I could have easily blown the whole month's food budget and not even come close to eating at them all. I needed to narrow my field down. So I decided to start where most visitors to Chinatown do, with Tony Hu.
Why Tony Hu?
Well, two reasons actually. As the unofficial spokesman for Chicago's Chinatown and owner of five acclaimed Chinese restaurants, it would be kind of crazy not to start with him. Plus, Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Beijing, Lao Shanghai, Lao You Ju, and Lao Hunan are all wildly different and unique. I should point out that each one of Hu's restaurants except Lao You Ju also focuses on a particular region, which made this adventure something of a culinary tour of China.
Then there is the personal reason. Four years ago, I didn't really understand the allure of Chinese food. Most of my experiences were with American-Chinese buffets, where items were mostly gloppy, sweet, and one dimensional. Then I took one bite of Tony's Three Chili Chicken at Lao Sze Chuan and haven't been the same since. Suddenly I realized that there was this whole world of Chinese food that I'd never known, and that it was my duty to learn more.
Though Hu has a few locations of Lao Sze Chuan in the suburbs and is getting ready to open a restaurant in River North, all of the restaurants I was concerned with are clustered together in Chinatown.
- Lao Sze Chuan
- Lao Beijing
- Lao Shanghai
- Lao You Ju
- Lao Hunan
As anyone who has stared at a menu at any of Tony Hu's restaurants knows all too well, there are probably a hundred different dishes to choose from. I could have eaten at each one a dozen times and still not tried everything. Narrowing down my options was absolutely essential.
To do so, I decided to follow these guidelines:
- Stick to Regional Items: For the most part, I tried to only order the dishes particular to that restaurant's regional focus. That meant only Sichuan items at Lao Sze Chuan, and on and on.
- Ignore the American-Chinese Dishes: Hu keeps standards like sweet and sour chicken on every single menu, which is fine, but I wanted to explore other items. (Though, for all I know, they could be tasty.)
- Do the Research: I looked through reviews of the Tribune, Reader, Time Out Chicago, and LTHForum for any helpful hints, while also scouring through the many Chinese cookbooks I have at home for any regional highlights.
- Take Advice: Armed with recommendations, I'd usually order at least one thing that the waitstaff suggested. Interestingly, these often turned out to be some of the best dishes of the night.
What I Learned
I'd visited a few of them before, but it was only after eating at all of them in close succession that I really started to understand what distinguished each restaurant. The numbing and hot combo at Lao Sze Chuan couldn't be more different than the subtle use of rice wine and sugar at Lao Shanghai. Even Lao Hunan, which had some madly spicy dishes, distinguished itself thanks to a reliance on funky pickled vegetables. I expected to come away with clear favorites, but I was constantly surprised. I didn't have anything close to a disappointing meal.
Choosing favorites is never an easy thing to do, especially when 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. Even though I've spent the better part of the past week in Chinatown, I definitely still have more eating to do.
Click through the slideshow to see which dishes made the list.
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