Searching for Tony Bourdain

Foie gras taste on a Big Mac budget

hurts so good

I’ve never been to China. The country fascinates me to no end because of its diversity, its long and storied history, and its political stances on so many things that rub the rest of the world the wrong way. But mostly, the part that fascinates me most is the food. Most “Chinese” food we eat in this country is westernized or even originated here. Sweet and Sour Chicken either doesn’t exist in China or goes by a different name and consists of a different set of ingredients, because a college friend of mine from Beijing admitted to me once that she’d never seen it before until she moved to the US.

I love ethnic food, and especially Asian. Sushi and Teppan Yaki are two of my favorite things, and Kimchee is a gift from God. But Chinese food is one of my favorites. And I don’t mean the stuff you get at Panda Express on a lunch break. I mean the real thing.

Chicago has a legendary Chinatown. Everything is in two languages there: English, and Mandarin. Even the street signs have characters on them. In my family, Chinese food is something of a Christmas tradition. Before I moved out of Jackson in 2008, we started volunteering at a dinner our family church held for the needy on Christmas. After the dinner, the only places open in Jackson, a city of 35,000, were Denny’s and Chinese restaurants. I’ve maintained this tradition, albeit from a distance, since.

I spent today alone. Michonne is in Michigan and I wasn’t able to get there because of my work schedule. (I won’t go into how irritating this is here.) So after picking up some photos sent to me by my California friend at the Walgreens at State and Roosevelt, I hopped the Red Line and took it to Cermak.

There are literally a hundred restaurants in the confines of what’s considered Chinatown on the Chicago neighborhood map. I’ve either eaten at, or gotten delivery from, five of them, and want to try many more. One of them has been getting a lot of press lately, so I decided today was the day to investigate.

There are either 29 or 32 provinces in China (depending on which map you’re looking at and which generation of Chinese immigrants you talk to), with each one contributing something to the diversity of Chinese food. One of these provinces, in southwest China, happens to be my favorite: Sichuan.

You know where I’m going with this now.

Spicy food is both a passion and Achilles heel for me. It’s both pleasing and painful, and some spice, I just can’t take. But I’ve never had real Szechuan food. Hot Pot, the real thing in Chengdu (capital of Sichuan Province), is one of my bucket list foods. While I may never actually make it to Chengdu, I know where I can get it here.

Lao Sze Chuan is a legend in the ethnic food community in Chicago. It’s won literally dozens of awards, the latest being a Michelin Bib Gourmand (remember the criteria: 2 courses and wine or dessert for less than $40), and it’s one of the Mayor’s favorites. Now I see why.

I waited for about 45 minutes for a table. Once I sat down, my server brought me an amuse bouche (French for “tease the palate”): Chinese cabbage in Szechuan Pepper Sauce. It was crunchy and cool, and the spice was sharp but quick. I enjoyed every bit of it. It wasn’t Kimchee in the literal sense (Kimchee is aged pickled cabbage, and it’s Korean), but it reminded me of it without beating me over the head with the reference.

My go-to appetizer, and a good way to evaluate quality for me, in a Chinese restaurant is Crab Rangoon. I’m not sure how authentic this stuff is (Rangoon, now called Yangon, is a city in Burma that took heavy damage during World War II), but it was the best Rangoon I’d ever tasted. It was packed tight with crab (it might have been the fake stuff) and sweet cheese, and it came with a pair of sauces: a spicy mustard sauce and an herbed honey sauce.

The place was packed tonight and they do a heavy takeout business, so I waited almost 40 minutes for my entree and the restaurant’s signature dish: dry chili chicken.

So worth the wait.

I’ve never had anything like this. The chicken came perfectly crispy with dried red chiles, crushed red pepper, and chopped green onion, and a bowl of simple white rice. Every bite was a bit painful because of the heat from the chiles and pepper flakes (and whatever spice was in the breading), but the pain was worth enduring. It was spicy, simple, and refreshing. It’s wonderful to know that this kind of food exists in this city. Even the simple white rice had a clean, enjoyable flavor. If somebody told me I was eating in Chengdu, I might have believed them.

Chef Tony Hu is a celebrity in China, and owns four other restaurants in Chinatown: Lao Beijing, Lao Shanghai, Lao Hunan, and Lao You Ju. All of them are standouts and local favorites. Lao Sze Chuan is his flagship, and for good reason. Not everything on the menu is spicy and the vegetarian representation is heavy, but if you’re gonna eat at a place known for spicy food, deal with the pain and allow yourself to sweat a little. It’s more fun that way.

Because of the wait for my food, my server comped me the Coke I asked for after I finished my beer (Tsing Tao, a Chinese classic), and when the bill came, I saw why this place won a Bib: For an imported Chinese beer, an order of Rangoon, and my Chili Chicken, I owed less than $25. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised since everything in Chinatown is cheap, but I was. Pleasantly. The meal had blown me away. I’d never been this satisfied by a Chinese meal, though the old adage about being hungry two hours later does hold true.

On my after-dinner walk down Wentworth Avenue and as I went through some of the craft shops on Chinatown’s main drag, I thought about some of the best meals I’d eaten in the past few years. Frontier, Brasa, HoDo, Cafe Spiaggia, Bozeman Trail. This ranks with these places that changed my life, and as I told my server, I will be back.

Next time, for Hot Pot.

Rating: Religious Experience

Lao Sze Chuan is a 2012 Michelin Bib Gourmand selection, and is at 2172 S. Archer Avenue in Chinatown.

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