A Brief Guide to Chicago Chinese Food (Reader Question)

The question has come in concerning the conspicuous lack of a bar and restaurant guide for Chicago, my home town:

You’ve made semi-themed dining and drinking guides for New York, San Francisco and Denver (of all places). Do you plan to do a similar guide for Chicago in the future? I’ve personally had little luck with most Chinese food I’ve had in Chicago. Chinese restaurants often have long menus full of unfamiliar stuff, some of which I’d be interested in trying, but I assume that’s a bit of a minefield. Would you recommend any restaurants, regional cuisines or specific dishes in Chicago?

These are good questions. The basis of my bar and restaurant guides is to give fellow frustrated folks some direction in cities that I’ve found inscrutable myself. The key insight in New York is that abundant competition doesn’t necessarily result in excellent food, that San Francisco is a tourist wasteland and that Denver is a backwater with no good fine dining options. All of that said, while there is good food to be had in each location, your chances of a good meal in any one without my guide (or some other trusted direction) is substantially less that even. I think Chicago is an easier city to find a bite, frankly.

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That said, I might as well take this opportunity to start a Chicago quick guide to Chinese restaurants. I’d like to assuage your fears that there is no good Chinese food in Chicago. That said, my experience in attempting to parse the scene got me into more trouble initially than it may have been worth. Thankfully, I stuck with it and began to notice some method to the madness.

As a general heuristic that may help you with Chinese restaurant picking, as a first step, don’t trust Non-Chinese Americans. Non-Chinese Americans, in my experience, tend to value service, decor, ease of ordering and convenience quite often. All of these things are not controlling in the restaurant picking decision made by actual Chinese people, however, for whom food quality, cleanliness and value are the only criteria. You can see how the incentives for restaurants, therefore, would start to diverge.

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As an entry point for Non-Chinese Americans, you have to offer those things that they want, and what they want may not be the absolutely best food delivered at the best price with the minimum chances of getting sick. Based on this, my initial suggestions to you are to be highly skeptical of:

  1. Anything Non-Chinese Americans tell you about Chinese restaurants (except me, of course),
  2. Any restaurant outside of large Chinese population centers (e.g., Chinatown, Bridgeport, Uptown, etc.),
  3. Any restaurant that has a suspicious number of talkative Non-Chinese people inside (anyone really enjoying food is never talking and laughing too much),
  4. Any restaurant within a few steps of the “L,”
  5. Any restaurant that has too far ranging a menu (anyone who wants to cover five regional cuisines, seafood, dim sum and barbecue is catering to the whims of those less discerning of any one specialty).

So, all of that said, I will make my suggestions for restaurants by dish or style of cuisine.

Yan Ban Cai
Description: Country-style Szechuan cuisine from Zigong, China. Stand out dishes are the Zigong style spicy fish stew and Szechuan frog legs.
Address: 228 West Cermak Road, Chicago
Telephone: (312) 842-7818

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Chengdu Impressions
Description: Located in Lincoln Park, but an oddity for the neighborhood with delicious regional Szechuan dishes like the best spicy lamb dumplings in Chicago and a rare green Szechuan peppercorn fish stew.
Address: 2545 North Halsted Street, Chicago
Telephone: (773) 477-6256

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Dolo Restaurant
Description: High quality, seafood-focused Cantonese fare in comfortable surroundings.  The daily specials, which change based on what seafood is available seasonally, are worth scouring through and the dim sum, generally freshest before noon on the weekends, is the best in town.
Address: 2222 South Archer Avenue, Chicago
Telephone: (312) 877-5117

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Go4Food
Description: A modern, Hong Kong take on Cantonese seafood with daily specials that control. Opt for the unusual here as it pays off.
Address: 212 West 23rd Street, Chicago
Telephone: (312) 842-8688

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Sun Wah BBQ
Description: The best Peking duck in Chicago, perfectly roasted and juicy with gorgeously crisped skin. Get reservations and be sure to tell them you want duck.
Address: 5039 North Broadway Street, Chicago
Telephone: (773) 769-1254

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BBQ King House
Description: Exceptionally cheap Chinese barbecue restaurant with a specialty in barbecue pork. Don’t get anything else but the pork though.
Address: 2148 South Archer Avenue
Telephone: (312) 326-1219

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Hing Kee
Description: Best Chinese hand-pulled noodles around but only when you can see the noodle puller hard at work in the front window. Otherwise the noodles may have been laying around and, while still good, are not at their prime.
Address: 2140 South Archer Avenue
Telephone: (312) 808-9538

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Little Lamb Hot Pot Restaurant
Description: You get a giant bowl of boiling seasoned broth that you dip raw ingredients into. It’s sort of a fondue meets Korean barbecue experience. Opt for the spicy, Szechuan broth and focus your order on red meat and fresh seafood; the latter you’ll have to ask about because what is frozen or fresh vary with season.
Address: 2201 South Wentworth Avenue
Telephone: (312) 225-0600

Chi Cafe
Description: A 4:00am Hong Kong style late night eatery with good hot pot, tea snacks and hearty options. The best late night eating you could ever ask for.
Address: 2160 South Archer Avenue
Telephone: (312) 842-9993

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Chatime
Description: A full service restaurant that is only worth visiting for its tea and juice options. Be sure to specify the level of sweetness you prefer when ordering. Less is more when it comes to sugar by my view so pick between 20 and 50 percent of standard.
Address: 2017 South Wells Street
Telephone: (312) 225-9088

That should be plenty to keep you busy for the next year or so. Happy eating!

Have a question? Ask me anything!

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