I’m officially done with tasteless beef. Part of this is I’m getting older, and I recognize that, despite pretending to court cardiac arrest in some of my writing like it was a hot prom date, arteriosclerosis, unlike Donald Trump’s promises to make Mexico pay for a border wall, is a real thing. I’ve already seen some of the best minds of my generation stented and statin-ed. Advertisements
Despite pimping black truffle-stuffed pasta or whiskey cocktails infused with bacon, most chefs don’t crave the things they purvey at their restaurants. After years of reporting, I’ve found a chef’s desert island meal is more like a Miller High Life and a piece of fried chicken.
Sometimes when I dine out, a song pops into my head that perfectly describes the experience. In the case of WonFun—the new West Loop Sichuan Chinese spot from Bar Marta vets Austin Baker and executive chef Ben Ruiz—that song is “Last Nite” by The Strokes. The song is about a breakup, but that’s not to say that WonFun is a great place to drop your sweetheart. I generally get hooked by melodies and rarely listen to lyrics. Julian Casablancas growls like a mumbling drunk, and a jangly guitar riff inspires me to head to the nearest darkest bar, put White Stripes on the jukebox, do shots of whiskey and dance until I fall over. Which is funny because I don’t dance. But “Last Nite” is the kind of song that makes you feel like you’re in the right place no matter where you are, the kind of song that makes you want to do stuff you don’t usually do. Stuff you might have to explain to a lawyer the next day. WonFun inspires the same wanton abandon
“I thought it was normal for your mom to make Mandarin pancakes when you were growing up. It was only later I realized nobody was doing that,” said Stephanie Izard, chef and partner behind West Loop’s new Duck Duck Goat. Armed with childhood memories of cooking Chinese food alongside her mother and recent travels to China, Izard teamed up with Boka Restaurant Group principals Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm for her third restaurant, a gourmet take on Chinese cuisine in Chicago. I stopped in recently to see if her efforts could satisfy General Tso’s army or if they’d leave me yearning for P.F. Chang’s orange peel shrimp
I screwed up. I showed up at a hot new restaurant in the middle of dinner rush hour looking for a table for six without a reservation. You see, I thought I’d made one, but it turned out I mistakenly booked a table a month out at Imperial Lamian in River North. The lobby filled with people. The open kitchen was a flurry. Steam poured from bamboo pots, and hand-pulled noodles thwacked against the counter. The restaurant buzzed, and I panicked. But the host smiled and said there was no need to worry—they’d have a table ready in 15 minutes. We were seated 10 minutes later
The Chinese phrase dim sum translates to “touch the heart” in English. It’s an apt descriptor for a cuisine that, when executed correctly, feels like a comforting family dinner party. But Chicago is not San Francisco, where there are so many good dumplings you almost expect the corner gas station to serve a mean barbecue bao. Many places in Chinatown and beyond serve stuff that’s been moldering away inside a bamboo basket for hours waiting for your order, or they dole out reheated pre-frozen dumplings with glutinous skins so thick you feel like you’re chewing on a tire with each bite.
Though I’m a bacon-eating Catholic, on Christmas Eve I like to think of myself as an honorary Jew. And no, it’s not the “I have all the money in the world, but still can’t find the secret of life” Madonna/Ashton Kutcher/Britney Spears faux-mystic Kaballah kind. Rather, I become the “I really don’t understand these people who chop down trees and track pine needles all over their house when Menorahs are so much more compact, and thank God at least Chinatown is open on December 24th, kind of Jew” (see note below). While all the other Christians are huddled around their turkey or some other second-rate roast, I’m down in Chinatown mainlining Sichuan noodles.
General Tso is an imposter. Not the very real legendary Qing dynasty general but rather the popular dish featuring cloying reddish-brown sauce-enrobed, boneless-McNugget-like meat served at every Chinese takeout in America. It did not originate in China but was created by an immigrant Chinese chef, in the early 1970s in New York.
This year I broke down and finally asked what Jesus would do. It happened at the 3pm Christmas Eve mass in the back of Old St. Pat’s church in the West Loop. Somewhere during the Gospel pageant, when a tiny Mary wrested plastic baby Jesus from his makeshift manger and hoisted him by his head like Michael Jordan palming a basketball, my mind started to wander.
It seems everyone wants to be the next Chipotle. For every upscale chef who opens a new hotdog stand or sandwich shop these days, there are two entrepreneurs trying to ape the success of the McDonald’s of Mexican, and become the next big ethnic franchise.