Chinatown Christmas

Michael Nagrant / 12.16.11

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.
Until five years ago, this kind of Chinese feast on Christmas had always been a fantasy. For almost 25 years I’d mostly spent midnight mass not with visions of sugar plums, but egg rolls and pots of Mongolian BBQ, dancing in my head. I blame the movie “A Christmas Story,” that cautionary tale of improper handling of Red Ryder BB-guns and fishnet-stocking-clad lady leg lamps. As you might recall, the movie was also a public service message about leaving a hot turkey out where the neighborhood junkyard dogs might find it and rip it apart. When such a fate befells young Ralphie Parker and his family, they decamp to a Chinese restaurant (inspired by the defunct, but once real Cam Lan Chinese restaurant in Hammond, Indiana, a former haunt of Al Capone) for their holiday meal.

Some might have seen that lonely night of almond chicken and fried rice accompanied by a tone-deaf, and fairly racist rendition of “Deck the Halls” sung by the restaurant’s proprietors as the Parker family hitting rock bottom. As an MSG junkie and a budding foodie, I thought it was inspired providence. Why suffer through a dried-out goose when there was a crispy lacquered duck cooked by someone else right around the corner?

But tradition is quite the weight. For another decade or so, despite my pleading, as a first-generation Pole, we stuck to the pierogi and fried fish on Christmas Eve. Six years ago after another midnight mass, I finally corralled my in-laws into stopping at a spot called Fortune House in Lansing, Mich., (it closed a year later — so clearly, not that fortunate). I think I was able to break them because I was still the new son-in-law they’d cared about impressing (they’ve long grown weary of my questionable charms).

Ever since then, I’ve been heading down to Chicago’s Chinatown (and occasionally Sun Wah in Uptown) every Christmas Eve. Such has been my commitment that my own mother and father have thrown in the towel and are driving into town this year specifically to join my wife and me for a Mao-worthy banquet on the 24th. I still haven’t decided exactly where I’ll end up this year, but for those of you looking to change your Christmas Eve traditions, or for anyone else looking for a new spot to try, here’s a list of some of my Chinatown favorites:

If I were on the proverbial desert island and I could choose only one Chinatown spot to send a delivery guy via boat to that island, it would be Double Li (228 W. Cermak, 312-842-7818). Chefs Ben and Wan Cai Li turn out the best Sichuan eats in town including a cold chili tendon, dry-chili chicken and what seems like the brainchild of Gene and Georgetti and Martin Yan, stir-fried black pepper garlic beef tenderloin. If you’re down with treif, you’ll also love the house-made bacon stir-fried with peapods.

If you love the Sichuan heat, you’ll dig the fiery hot pot broth across the street at Mandarin Kitchen (2143 S. Archer, 312-328-0228). For $17, you get a gallon of soup broth, either non-spicy, or a hellfire roiling brew, or a half-and-half pot of both (my favorite), as well as an all-you-can-eat assortment of meatballs, lamb, chicken, shrimp, dumplings, noodles and vegetables. Unless you’re native Hawaiian or you have a predilection for Spam, you might want to avoid the “luncheon meat” offering.

If heat’s not your thing, the relatively mild Hong Kong-style offerings at Triple Crown (2217 S. Wentworth, 312- 842-0088) are just the thing. I don’t know if they have magical elves in the back or what, but the fantastic hand-pulled noodles (served with chicken or seafood) have the most incredible gluten-chew and are probably the best noodles (sorry Spiaggia) served in Chicago.

The dim sum menu featuring peanut and pork-studded chiu chow dumplings, righteously silky chicken feet, and sweet egg custard buns, is one of the best in town. The dining room aquariums filled with clacking crabs (best stir fried with ginger and scallion), languorous lobster and chubby Tilapia makes a fine distraction for any children in your party.

There are no fish tanks on view, but there are plenty of Chinese tourist tchotchkes like googly-eyed shiny cat banks and Mongolian warrior carvings on display at Spring World (2109 S. China Place, 312-326-9966). Spring World’s superb mushroom-focused Yunnan-style dishes shouldn’t be missed, but it’s the Kung Pao chicken featuring glistening chunks of meat stir-fried with spicy red chili, pungent peanut and crispy celery that I crave. Seasons Eatings!

NOTE: I recognize that all this generalization of Jewish behavior by a gentile will probably engender letters to the editor, so just don’t take it from me. During 2010 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, in a line of questioning related to a Christmas Day terrorist plot in Detroit, Senator Lindsey Graham asked now-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan “Where were you on Christmas?” She responded, “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in a different form.