Here’s To New Friends

03.05.20

If you’re getting over the Coronavirus, have I got the place for you. Yes, it’s a Chinese restaurant, or Chinese by way of Hong Kong, located in Chicago’s West Town, called Lao Peng You. This means “old friend” in Chinese, a nod to the fact that this spot serves the nostalgic grandma cuisine of owners Daniel and Eric Wat’s childhood.

I am not equating Covid-19 and Chinese food out of some misguided xenophobia. I believe you are more likely to die of influenza contracted from a Hot Pocket. Unless, you are over 80 years old, a cohort with which the Coronavirus has thus far proven to have a 14%+ fatality rate.  But even then, great-granny probably contracted the disease from a fast food drive thru or a Walmart greeter.

Anyway, she should, as you should, go to Lao Peng You, before, after and in between any sickness.  This is because as we know, laid low, achey, feverish, nauseous, left with the asthmatic bronchial tendencies of the love child of Darth Vader and Steve Urkel, you begin to channel the stanzas of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”:

This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.

And though you have gone full Lil Wayne and done 13 shots of codeine-spiked sizzurp (grape-flavored, of course), you need more.  You need a shot of momma’s poultry pride, the steamy soulful bowl, chicken soup and a side of carbs. 

You can of course, go the Jewish Penicillin-route, and if you must, the matzo-ball at Steingold’s, a schmaltz-dappled deeply-roasted brew stocked with fulsome carrots is a standard you should imbibe.

But, I would also suggest, Lao Peng You’s chicken noodle. Like the Steingold’s bowl, the broth is almost mahogany, fat-kissed, and redolent with a smoky essence. It is sturdy, and so infused with rich collagen, I suspect it would jiggle like Jello when cooled.  Nestled in a tangle of springy noodles, silky poached chicken capped with golden skin wafts star anise with each bite.

If you prefer dumplings, there are so many different flavors, hand-rolled in house, plunged into a tangy hot soup of aged soy, chili oil, and vinegar. The broth is so flavorful, it actually overwhelms the flavoring of the pork-flavored dumplings. If you are committed to the pig above all, the dill version has a clear and delightful pickle-like note.  The beef-flavored dumplings fare much better, their assertive mineral funk and green onion pungency harmonizes with the powerful broth.

There are cold salads on offer too. A mountain of woodear mushrooms glistening with sesame oil bursts with garlic and lip-numbing chili spice.

At Lao Peng You, the bing, though, is the thing. Think scallion pancakes on steroids, a savory doughnut with crispy ridges and a glutinous chew stuffed with various fillings tucked into a paper sleeve like some glorious Chinese-riff on a McDonald’s hash brown.  There is a scallion-packed variant available, but my favorite is the Xi’An bing featuring tender tendrils of funky cumin-perfumed lamb.

Lao Peng You is diminutive and spartan. There’s a chalkboard menu, white walls, a black diamond-patterned ceiling, and a smattering of framed family photos, the kind of die-cut-surrounded collection likely found in your mom’s stairwell or hallway. The tininess is part of the charm. You huddle close, intimate with like-minded food-seekers, banded together against the howl of Chicago’s winter. It feels like you’re in some dystopian disaster movie, the only survivors of an epidemic, left with nothing to do but slurp noodles. If this IS the way the world ends, hot damn, I can’t wait!

Lao Peng You is located at 2020 W. Chicago Ave.

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