A Good Egg (Roll) in Chicago

Michael Nagrant / 09.25.08

You can’t always eat glazed chicken feet or stinky tofu or braised cold tendon in chili oil. Sometimes you just want an honest crab rangoon. But then you think, am I going to lose my serious eater’s card for indulging in American Tiki-craze Trader Vic-inspired goodies like deep fried wonton-wrapped cream cheese studded with fake krab meatand scallions?

Such was my state of mind a few weeks ago when I sidled into the vinyl booths at the 40-plus years old Lincoln Square Chinese restaurant Shanghai Inn. The décor alone was an homage to the American-Cantonese almond boneless chicken serving palaces of my youth.

Chinese zodiac placemats, check. Paper lanterns, check. Fortune cookies, check. This was the kind of place Ralphie and his family from the 1983 classic A Christmas Story would most definitely be happy mowing down on some Beijing duck after those rabid dogs ruined their turkey dinner. Décor aside, would the food be good?

In Chicago, the Chinese offerings tend to live in the extremes. Either you go to Chinatown for a bout with hyper-regional delicacies like funky reconstituted dry mushroom dishes from Yunnan or you fall asleep after a dish or two of MSG-induced gloppy sauced Mongolian beef at some take-out joint. Finding really goodAmericanized Chinese food that didn’t suck had proved elusive.

In that respect, Shanghai Inn was mecca for such eats. It all starts with a good crispy egg roll dipped in nose hair-searing hot mustard and sweet plum sauce. While sweet and sour or “pineapple” chicken was as neon orange as a Vegas marquee, the sauce featured a touch more sour–and wasn’t motor oil viscous like usual suspects.

The chicken itself was tempura light and crisp. Moo shu beef featured rich beefy planks stir fried with crisp cabbage, carrot, and fennel, and crispy tortilla pancakes.See Jee Som Kow, or wafer thin slices of barbecue pork, plump shrimp, and mixed veggies served fajitas style, on a sizzling plate filled with garlic and black bean gravy was tasty.

Best of all, they served an honest and delicious crab rangoon.

Shanghai Inn

4723 North Damen, Chicago IL 60625 (map)