Thursday, April 2, 2009


First off, let me just say that I will admit to having huge blind spots. I tend to get intimidated by big-deal "things"--subjects or areas that are just massive and deep, or require a decent amount of expertise that others possess, but I don't. And what happens, as a result of this, is that I avoid diving in, or even dipping my toe, into that particular arena, due to my reluctance to play the role of novice.

Such is the case with Chinatown.

Until recently, my only experience in Chinatown was as a kid, going to Phoenix for dim sum with my parents a few times, and, as an adult, driving through the area, lost, on my way to or from McCormick Place.

Thankfully, I found a mentor; someone even more food-obsessed than I, someone with extensive Chinatown experience, into whose hands I could place myself for, at least, my initial experience. An acid-trip "spirit guide" of sorts, only instead of metaphysical hallucinations, we'd be dealing with live turtles, sharkfin, and spicy tofu.

I met Mhays (a fellow denizen of LTH forum) at the mac and cheese sMACkdown, and immediately connected with her and her family, so we made tentative plans for a dual family outing, which happened last weekend. With the logistical barriers of where to park, explore, and eat taken out of my decision-making equation, the novice factor was effectively addressed, and my sense of being completely intimidated by the sheer scope of Chinatown became much less of a consideration.

I realize that this is a silly reason to avoid exploring culturally rich areas, but it is what it is. I have this somewhat obsessive need to thoroughly research and investigate EVERY little aspect of something in order to feel that I've experienced it as fully as I'd like to--I'm the guy who reads five guidebooks cover to cover before going on vacation, if that helps you to understand the mindset. So sometimes it's easiest to simply limit my horizon, rather than attempting to take on an entirely new genre.

By putting myself entirely in the hands of someone else, however, someone who's already done the work, conducted the research and fieldwork, I can sidestep my (admittedly unhealthy) maximization tendencies, and become a mere follower who's simply about just enjoying whatever happens to float across his field of vision.

So, that's what I did, and my Chinatown spirit guide did not steer me wrong.

We essentially skipped the main drag along Wentworth that I was expecting would be our focus, in favor of the more easily-accessible Chinatown Square, which is essentially a closed-off open air mall, which kind of turns its back to Archer Avenue. We found plenty of gift shops loaded down with swords, fake fountains, and lucky buddhas, quite a few medicinal herb shops in which we stared at one glass jar after another wondering what the hell you're supposed to do with THAT, and food markets like Mayflower market where we bought bagfuls of weird-sounding candy, frozen barbecued pork buns, and checked out tanks of live fish and reptiles.

We did quite a bit of wandering, so we worked up a pretty good appetite for lunch, and after checking in at Phoenix and finding a half hour wait for their dim sum, we took Michelle's advice and headed over to Lao Sze Chuan.

We were seated immediately at a large corner table, and promptly given hot tea (which was very welcome on this snowy late March day) and a plate of spicy pickled cabbage on which to munch while the kids played around with chopsticks and bugged us to open the candy we'd just bought.

The food was, as expected, very good, with the specialties of Dry Chile Chicken, Dry Chile Beef, and the Szechuan Green Beans being the standout dishes. We also had Salt and Pepper Small Fish (essentially deep fried whole smelt), Pot Herb with Pork, a soup with clams and tofu, a tripe dish which wasn't what we ordered, and some steamed buns and crab rangoon for the kids.

And while the food was worth returning for, what I really enjoyed was the place itself. It was bustling on a Sunday afternoon, jammed with people, all of whom seemed to be celebrating something--if nothing else, the fact that they were in a great restaurant feasting on well-prepared spicy dishes instead of out in the snowy cold. But, beyond that, I found the service to be just excellent. We had at least four different people at our table refilling water and teacups, whisking away empty plates, bringing more chopsticks to replace the ones the kids kept dropping, and just generally making sure that we were well cared for.

At one point, I managed to extract my nose from my plate of spicy chicken long enough to notice that one of the servers had commandeered our seven-month old, Nora, and was standing next to the table, rocking and holding her, grinning from ear to ear and showing her off to the other servers, who had all gathered around. And Nora, who can be skittish with strangers, was loving it. (Yes, the server did ask my wife if it was ok before snatching up my kid.). It's this kind of personal attention--genuine, caring interest in people--that really underscores what hospitality is all about. These women really enjoyed having us as guests in their restaurant, and they made it clear in no uncertain terms.

So, yeah, the food was good. But what stood out more was the actual experience. It's that kind of stuff that transforms restaurants with good food into Great Restaurants.

More importantly, what I got from the trip was some level of knowledge, so that I no longer feel intimidated to tackle this kind of outing all on my own. The easy in and out logistics of the Chinatown Square section make it seem much easier to just zip in there for a quick lunch and an afternoon of browsing, and I'm looking forward to checking out some of the other places, like Spring World, BBQ King House (which is where the first picture of this piece was taken), or (Little) Three Happiness (the namesake of LTH forum).

So, thanks, Michelle. It was great to get our families together and I hope this will be the first of many of these kind of outings (stay tuned--we discussed a Maxwell Street Market outing once the weather gets nicer).


art said...

I've spent a lot of time in Chinatown and it seems like I discover something new to eat or cook with every time I go. I would recommend Happy Chef for their late night dim sum. It's not a traditional dim sum, rather an abbreviated menu of small plates at a small price (I think it starts at 9 or 10 pm?) And they are open til 2 am everyday. Aji Ichiban can't be beat for their candied squid--I think they have the best candied squid products in Chicago--ok maybe the only candied squid products in Chicago.

TrekkerT said...

You know, it's always the meat that stands out to me when we graze in Chinatown. At first, I had a difficult time with the meat everywhere. There was always something that struck me as crude about it. Dead, skinned bunnies hanging from chains, dripping onto old tarps. It's just was not appetizing.

Now I've found that if I view it from a different perspective, it's a very natural way to consider meat. We're so used to delicately pre-packaged meat that comes with all the blood and gore drained out. It even looks like they shine store meat sometimes. Like they do with apples. And now THAT strikes as me as weird too.

Presenting meat is difficult in a culture like ours where we like to forget what we eating. In the food culture in Chinatown, they make no bones about it. They're almost like "You! Yes, you! Look here at this dead thing I have skinned with my own hands. Look not away! This blood, this gore, this is delicious! Behold!"