The Deli Dilemma

Michael Nagrant / 02.23.20

Duck blood and other mystery meats.

Despite the fact that I would like this to be the name of my future band. It is not. Rather it’s a descriptor of my first-generation Polish childhood, of the tripe-filled Sunday visits to see my babcia and dziadzia (grandma and grandpa). 

Sort of. Even though my mom was born in Poland, and my dad’s side was second generation Slovakian, his babushka-clad mother still had one foot in the “old country”- I was a typical white American suburban kid who avoided the sanguinary delights of czarnina, aka, duck blood soup, until I was much older.

Which is to say, though I was lucky to be exposed to the culinary roots of my heritage, I generally didn’t partake in the offering as much as I should. I dabbled in offal at an early age, a harbinger for my future career, but honestly, the competition was too good. I have been told one of my first toddler phrases was “fresh fry”, as in, McDonald’s was so perfectly engineered for satisfaction that even a baby understood the rapture of beef tallow-fried spuds. This is also proof that even if your small child is currently on the David Duke diet, i.e. only eating foods which are white like rice, pasta, marshmallows, one day, they may still grow to be a foodie.

“Eyetalian”, mostly, in the form of Olive Garden breadsticks, was as cosmopolitan as it got in Shelby Township, Michigan. Up until recently, the town’s biggest claim to fame was that Joe Louis, the champion of the world, once possessed country digs, a spot called Spring Hill Farm, on the outskirts, near the city of Utica, also formerly known as Hog’s Hollow. There were no Thai joints, not even a Mexican joint that wasn’t Chi-Chi’s, in Shelby when I was growing up. 

There was Kwong Tung Palace.  Like so many other provincial whiteys, my most formative taste of the larger world came in the form of Chinese food. Although, like many, I grew up less with “authentic” Chinese and more with Cantonese-inspired recipes doused in sugar and salt and refracted through an American prism, like chop suey, sweet and sour and almond boneless chicken. Every meal came with squishy hot Parker House-style dinner rolls. It was, of course, the Chinese family who owned the restaurant’s version of free chips and salsa, aka “if we give these picky-ass suburbanites a basket of warm wheat treats like something out of a Norman Rockwell dinner scene, maybe they’ll order some egg foo young!”

While I wasn’t yet eating chicken feet, I was also not my younger brother who always ordered the ubiquitous children’s menu hamburger. Kwong Tung, like so many other small-town Chinese spots likely had a “secret” menu for the few Mandarin-speaking families that lived nearby, but I was not Calvin Trillin, and thus, never discovered it.  Still, if a dish was modified by the words Hunan or Sichuan, I ordered it. My best friend worked at Kwong Tung as a bus boy, and the teenage Chinese girls who worked there introduced him to sriracha during family meal. After he showed me this life-changing elixir, I was mainlining sriracha, putting it on everything including slices of pizza.

Kwong Tung, was literally a portal to something else. Located in a strip mall amidst a frozen yogurt stand (TCBY) and a Radio Shack (RIP), typical storefronts lined with a Versailles Hall of Mirrors-length expanse of clear plate glass, the fortress-like frontage of Kwong Tung stood apart. Turquoise brick was inlaid with a black brick outline of a pagoda arch. Embedded under the arch was a set of crimson colored double doors, the whole thing a scene of beckoning enchantment.

After high school, I left Shelby for Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan.  High school was relatively easy to game for me, and so by the time I hit college… Wait, back that up, because, I had zero actual study skills, college hit me.  That first semester, I spent a good deal of time getting tests back emblazoned with scarlet-colored letters I’d never seen (definitively not the good kind of Hester Prynne’s bosom). My first defense against academic failure was sleep. My second defense was playing lots of old 8-bit Nintendo, aka Mario, Zelda, and Mike Tyson’s Punchout. Then there was always my third defense, aka going in search of great food. Nothing lifted my spirits more.

After every C on a genetics test, you’d find me hunkered over a plate of chili-flecked golden peanut-larded kung pao chicken at China Gate on South University Ave. If not, you would definitely spot me getting a steamy facial from Jolly Green Giant-sized verdant stalks of broccoli swimming in mahogany hunks of General Tso’s chicken at Wok Express on Packard.

Though General Tso’s is probably the most popular and ubiquitous American Chinese dish (invented in NYC), I have never had a better version than the one at Wok Express. Ever since Wok Express closed, I mourn that dish like Shah Jahan missed Mumtaz Mahal (aka, the lady whose death inspired the building of the Taj Mahal).  Not only was Wok’s General Tso’s the best version I’d ever had, their combo with egg roll and fried rice never topped $5 during my college career. No one, as with most major delivery and takeout spots, ever dined inside Wok Express. Luxuriating, alone, over a heaping plate, the sweet chili steam giving way to a vista of chain-smoking wok jocks working behind the counter was my kind of dream decompression.

The General Tso’s at Hunan, Aurora outside Cleveland, where I got my first job out of college, had a dash of black vinegar which broke up the sugary monotony in a smart way. I loved it. According to the autographed photo near the cash register, it was also Jim Thome’s, the Cleveland Indians home run king, favorite, too. 

Thome eventually followed me to Chicago to play for the White Sox. Though it didn’t work out for Jim, the Sox were done after 2005, Chicago is where I made my bones, ate my first chicken feet, salt and pepper calamari, stir-fried jellyfish, ma po tofu, and Yunnan-style stir-fried mushrooms.  It is where I first experienced real regional Chinese cooking, and the gummy tapioca glory of Joy Yee’s bubble tea.

Old habits die hard, of course, and I still love American Chinese food. I regularly procure sesame chicken from Orange Garden. Shanghai Inn on Damen and Lee’s Chop Suey on Diversey also put out solid American Cantonese. Lee’s peanut butter spiked egg rolls are a standard (RIP Kow Kow – the true gold standard of Chicagoland egg rolls) and I’ve eaten Lee’s (through delivery) more than any restaurant in the world by 5X easily.

Sometimes my love of American Chinese transcends my current hometown. My greatest vice is airport Chinese food. Kung Pao shrimp at Legal Sea Foods in Boston Logan and the sticky ribs at Hunan Return of Phoenix at Houston Hobby are game changers.

While this is my history, it’s also probably emblematic of most people in America. Even though they think they’ll contract Coronavirus from a PF Chang’s frozen orange chicken entrée, even NASCAR-lovin’ Trump-idolizin’ mobs love American Chinese food.

This fact underpins a theory I’d like to forward, called the Deli Dilemma, a pox on would be nostalgia-swinging restauranteurs. Before we explain the Deli Dilemma, though, let’s consider a brief history of the traditional Jewish deli.

Once beloved and numerous, delis have generally disappeared across America. The contraction of the deli business is no doubt first and foremost a byproduct of the fact that the original delis were founded by immigrants who used them as a low-barrier-to-entry way to make a living in America. However, deli work, as most restaurant work is, is taxing, barbaric, and low-margin. Immigrant parents and grandparents worked so hard in these delis that they provided their kids an opportunity to be anything they wanted (especially if that thing they wanted to be was a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer) and thus the kids did not take over their family businesses.

However, if second generation kids wouldn’t continue their birthright, then surely some other entrepreneur or immigrant would. Sounds great. However, maybe more than any other cuisine, whether we’re talking about nonna’s Sunday gravy or abuela’s tortillas, Jewish food nostalgia runs deep. One argument for this might be that few cuisines have salved the sorrows of a holocaust or innumerable pogroms. I don’t know if that’s it, but what I can tell you is I’ve written semi-vitriolic reviews of beloved Michelin-level restaurants a few times, and there was zero reader response. However, anytime I post a pic or an opinion about a single latke crumb on Instagram, I get ten people threatening my entire family.

This is the deli dilemma. God help you if you’re the counterman at a new or old deli concern. There’s an aphorism that a Jewish boy doesn’t really become a man until his mother dies. The corollary is that you can never be a real deli until you replicate every single customers’ idiosyncratic bubbe’s recipe exactly, even if that means braising the brisket in Coca Cola and dumping Heinz on it.

Just ask Aaron Steingold of Chicago’s modern deli, Steingold’s who said, “On more than a couple occasions, I’d walk around the neighborhood in a Steingold’s T-shirt and sometimes wondered if someone would punch me in the face for not delivering the Reuben they expected.”

Similarly, if you are going to recreate the experience of American Chinese food, as the team behind Bucktown restaurant Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar is, well, mazel, fucking, tov, man. Which is to say, trying to do a cheffy version of a cuisine everyone in the world has solid standard for, is like spitting at Satan. Tempt the fates like this and the deli dilemma will take you down to Chinatown.

If you’re a high-end chef, you usually have two safer avenues available to you when approaching a revered cuisine. You can deconstruct the hell out of old classic, i.e. make like salad niçoise with liquified tuna shooters, or you can rapper’s delight it up, say drip gold leaf on the chicken parm and serve it inside a Louis Vuitton Off White-collab sneaker.

If you, however, try to replicate the experience closely, well, you probably have a better chance of getting a gun control bill passed in the US Senate.  If anyone can do this, though, it’s Jason Vincent, who I have declared on multiple occasions is one of, if not my favorite chef in Chicago. Jason and the restaurant group behind Giant (Ben Lustbader and Josh Perlman are also partners) are launching Chef’s Special, a riff on the kind of Chinese food Americans grew up with. Jason isn’t cooking this time around. Aaron Kabot and Tom Scodari, new chef partners in the restaurant group are.

The Chef’s Special team has wisely stayed away from paper lantern, black and red lacquer, and Chinese zodiac placemat aesthetic, according to Mercury News.  Unfortunately, they went with a mauve and turquoise paint theme, aka the Sherwin Williams Crockett and Tubbs Miami Vice collection.  The rest of the room is rounded out with lunette-style window archs (an architectural artifact of the previous space), honey-colored wainscoting straight from a 70s porn shoot, Tron-grid-like upholstery, and vaguely Asiatic wooden seats that look they were stolen from a tiki bar liquidation sale. Throw in a couple Thomas Kinkade paintings and this would be my mother’s living room in 1987. You’d think I’d find this comfortable, but the Salvation Army-chic is neither comfortable, cool, or cohesively retro.

The food here suffers from Deli Dilemma big time. The egg rolls are huge and dappled like old deep-fried McDonald’s apple pies. I appreciate that they contain gigantic shrimp as opposed to the typical krill-sized ones that most traditional American Chinese spots use. But, these egg rolls are missing the deep bbq pork punch of the now defunct Kow Kow egg roll, and the peanut butter-tinged salty sweetness of my current go-to egg roll at Lee’s Chop Suey. Take away the shrimp and you wouldn’t be able to pick this egg roll, or frankly, even the Chef’s Special crab rangoon out of a line-up of ten pu pu platters selected at random from all Chicago Chinese takeout joints.

The best walnut shrimp features golden tempura-swaddled crustaceans dripping in a pearlescent slather of condensed milk and mayo crowned with a chockful of sugar-varnished crunchy walnuts.  Chef’s Special version is barely sweet, tossed with bitter radicchio like some kind of cruise ship side salad, and you have to go full on Dora the Explorer to locate any of the tiny nut clusters.

I don’t usually crowd source my reviews from people I follow on Twitter, but Kenny, who dined at Chef’s Special a week and a half after me had the exact same thought I did about the chow fun.

I’d hoped for a house-made soulful gluten chew, and the whole thing ate like a tangle of microwaved Annie Chun’s.

Another confusing element of Chef’s Special is that it tries to straddle not only Chinese American classics, but also the greatest “authentic” hits from Chinatown like ma po tofu and dry chili chicken.

Great dry chili chicken is a tango of lip-numbing Sichuan peppercorn and salty MSG. I love dry chili chicken so much, that even though I know I will be drinking a quart of milk and doing Mylanta shots the next day as my stomach lining sloughs off from the chili burn, I eat it as much as I can. Chef’s Special version gets the crispy popcorn chicken texture correct, but the weak chili burn has the furor of a dollop of Sweet Baby Rays, and the whole thing woefully yearns for salt.  Chef’s Special version of dry chili chicken was so mediocre, it made me question whether this dish was truly ever any good anywhere else. As such, a few days later, I ordered Lao Szechuan’s dry chili chicken for delivery, from the Uptown location. Seeing as I live in Logan Square and the dry chili chicken would be sogging in a hot box for at least 30 mins in transit, this seemed like a terrible idea. And yet, even in its diminished form, Lao’s version still blew me away.

One dish that did not suffer from salt was a Mongolian Beef so brackish, it felt like it had marinated in the Dead Sea for a week before being fired in the wok. It was also unusually sour, like someone had dumped in a jigger of citric acid. Again, I generally don’t crowd-source my reviews, but I compared notes with a friend who ate at Chef’s Special a few weeks later, and he confirmed the salt dump.

The only classic dish that I tried at Chef’s Special which exceeded OG versions I’ve tried before, was the combo fried rice. Unlike clumpy, unseasoned takeout rice, each distinct grain here was bursting with soy and a sweet floral winey essence.

I don’t think the kitchen’s failure is entirely due to the power of nostalgia, aka the Deli Dilemma. Some of it was just straight up seasoning, flavor balance, and technique malfunction. That being said, I found it curious that when Chef’s Special created their own dishes or dabbled in less popular standards, they killed it.

For example, one of the best things I ate was a unique salad of silky tofu skin, crispy chicken skin shards, crunchy peanut, and sesame, a study in brilliant textural contrasts.

Ma po tofu is familiar to a lot of people, but it’s not the kind of dish you’ll find at Panda Express. You’ll also be hard pressed to find a ma po tofu better than the Chef’s Special example, filled with lava-hot-ground-pork-laden-gravy and jiggly cubes of buttery tofu. However, if you do eat this, pro tip, make sure you have Tucks medicated pads near your porcelain throne the next morning.

Service, full of responsive water glass filling and napkin-folding (when a member of your party goes to the restroom), is on point.

Chef’s Special and its beverage director/partner Chase Brocamantes deliver on the “cocktail bar” aspect of the project. The chefs special #1, featuring gin, mango brandy, absinthe, cherry and lemon, was a bitter-kissed fruity stone-cold stunner. I have a friend who loves Last Word cocktails (gin, green Chartreuse, maraschino, lime) so much that she orders them everywhere we dine together, even if it’s not on the bar list. Fifty percent of the time, even at really good restaurants, they have no idea what she’s talking about, or they make a horrible version. Chef’s Special whipped up a great one brimming with lime.

Dessert at Chef’s Special is also solid, particularly a gooey slab of sesame jasmine cake. The piece de resistance though was a trio of warm from the oven, soft-bake almond cookies featuring a single blanched almond pressed into the center. While it was a triumph, the kind of reinvention of a classic I hankered for most of the night, I still wondered for a minute whether or not I preferred the crumbly almost short bread-like versions teeming with almond extract I’ve known all my life. In the end, I didn’t. The Chef’s Special cookie was unquestionably superior, but this is the kind of mental battle with diners’ memories a lot of original restaurants don’t have to overcome.  Stephanie Izard’s Duck, Duck, Goat, in theory, faces the same issues, but, unlike Chef’s Special, it captivates me, because in its unique cinematic spaces and tendency toward more regional, and not American, Chinese cuisine, I find something truly unique for which there is no real competing benchmark.

Chef’s Special is located 2165 N. Western