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Best of Chinatown

Ten recommended restaurants

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Double Li

228 W. Cermak | 312-842-7818

$$

CHINESE | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | BYO

Double Li is named for chef-owners Ben Li and Wan Cai Li, but for fans of Szechuan cuisine it also signifies that we've doubled our options for mouth-tingling, authentically aggressive specialties from the region. Here are Szechuan dumplings, delectably cartilaginous pig's ear, and—my favorite Double Li starter—Szechuan tripe with finely minced celery as a textural counterpoint. Fish in chile broth is terrific, the fillet meltingly tender and the chile oil hot enough to start one thinking of the firehouse a few doors east. Or try the intense lamb hot pot seasoned with cumin, a one-two punch of fragrance and flavor. Crisp-edged dry chile chicken is engaging, but it's black pepper-garlic beef that's quickly becoming a signature dish. To get the authentic stuff ask for the translated Szechuan menu. —Gary Wiviott

Ken-Kee Restaurant

2129 S. China Pl. | 312-326-2088

$

ASIAN, CHINESE | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: MONDAY-SATURDAY TILL 1, SUNDAY TILL MIDNIGHT | BYO

With two separate menus and walls papered with interesting specials, this sparsely furnished restaurant in the Chinatown Mall offers dishes from all over the map—and off it as well. There's a Pork Chop With Thousand Island Sauce that sounds like an Italian futurist dreamed it up. But Ken-Kee doesn't overreach. It does many, many things very well, from standards like beef with broccoli to 24 variations on simple congee to more interesting creations like the five-spice lotus root with Chinese sausage and bacon, and endlessly fascinating combinations of ingredients like duck tongues and baby pea tips. And if seafood is a good benchmark to measure a busy kitchen's standards, Ken-Kee's are high: the fried smelt special, battered and dressed with chiles, was unbelievably fresh. —Mike Sula

Lao Beijing

2138 S. Archer | 312-881-0168

$$

CHINESE | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS  | open late: friday & Saturday till 11

The third of Tony Hu's regional Chinese restaurants, Lao Beijing was quick to take its place alongside sibling Lao Shanghai and flagship Lao Sze Chuan. Artworks depicting classic Beijing dishes set the stage for plump steamed lamb dumplings and crisp scallion pancakes. Cucumber salad is accented by the familiar flavors of peanut, cilantro, and scallions with a spike of chile pepper; far less common is cucumber with chunks of cartilaginous pig ear, a true textural treat. Chef's Special Crispy Eggplant is not to be missed, volcanically hot eggplant encased in crackling crisp coating with just a hint of sweetness. Lamb with cumin, served either on the bone or skewered, is smoky and rich. Beijing duck served in three courses—first shredded duck with chive and sprouts, then duck soup with tofu and greens, then (and best of all) crisp, fatty, succulent duck skin wrapped in pancakes with hoisin sauce and scallion—deserves its namesake status. —Gary Wiviott

Lao Shanghai

2163 S. China Pl. | 312-808-0830

$$

CHINESE | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY-SUNDAY TILL 11 | BYO

The Shanghainese are fond of cooking with sugar, alcohol, and vinegar, and they make particular use of "red cooking," in which meats are braised slowly in soy sauce. You find all of those characteristics represented on the Shanghai side of Tony Hu's menu, along with the delicate and volatile snack xiao long bao, or steamed soup dumplings. At times Lao Shanghai's dumplings suffer from thickness, but at least every one I've eaten actually contained soup (though not enough), a surprisingly common problem around town. Otherwise, the "eight precious stir fried in hot sauce" was particularly good, uniform dice of pork, vegetables, and tofu cooked with peanuts in a spicy-sweet black vinegar. The Shanghai-style fish fillet, in a thick, bland sauce with wood ear mushrooms, was terrifically silky and fresh, and contrasted nicely with the crunchy fungus. Braised pork belly in preserved bean curd sauce, a bright orange-red shimmering blob made in the aforementioned red cooking style, was tender enough to be baby food and deceptively subdued in comparison to its treacly appearance. Shanghai rice soup, a sweet wine-based hot broth with soft rice and balls of rice gluten, makes a nice finish. Other seminal Shanghainese dishes available include stir-fried eels, drunken chicken, and buns, fried or steamed. —Mike Sula

Lao Sze Chuan Restaurant

2172 S. Archer | 312-326-5040

$$

CHINESE | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: every night TILL MIDNIGHT

At Tony Hu's celebrated Szechuan restaurant, dishes arrive with dispatch despite the crush. Bony Szechuan rabbit, marinated in oil and black vinegar and sprinkled with sweet peanuts, was every bit as pungent as the spicy sliced beef and maw was frightening looking and chewily addictive. Pork hock home style, with a blanket of thick fat covering the tender, fall-apart meat, was drenched in a dark red chile sauce redolent of star anise; powerfully but not painfully seasoned lamb with cumin Xin Jang remains epiphanic. Ma po tofu was the silky heavyweight it always is, and the snacking potential of dishes like chile chicken (tiny deep-fried nuggets tossed with dark red dried chiles) and lightly battered whole chile smelts was fully realized. Other highlights on the endless menu include Spicy Chengdu Chicken, Jelly Fish Shanghai, smoked tea duck, Szechuan string beans, and the elaborate double-sided hot pots. —Mike Sula

Spring World

2109 S. China Pl. | 312-326-9966

$

CHINESE | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | BYO

James An's Yunnanese restaurant stands out in many ways, from its sparkling room to an expansive regional menu that focuses largely on dishes made with dried wild mushrooms said to have medicinal properties—the southern Chinese province is famous for such fungi. Mushroom hot pot is a murky, delicately spicy broth roiling with nearly a dozen species of 'shroom (including matsutake and Chinese black truffle) plus greens, herbs, tofu, and bits of lamb—a party of textures and flavors that continues to develop in the leftovers stage. A fabulous dish of seven mushrooms and chicken cooked in a tube of green bamboo is the hot pot's equal in complexity and nuance and is supposed to be good for a sore throat. Other provincial specialties include a heaping plate of lamb riblets sprinkled with cumin and chile and a platter of similarly seasoned chicken chunks with chewy, pillowy rice cakes and red and green chiles. Both pack a smoky wallop. Other Yunnanese favorites include "Across the Bridge," a dramatic hot pot of sliced meats and rice noodles, and the lamb stew and fish with sour-pickle casserole, which is a lot better than it sounds. —Mike Sula

Sweet Station

2101 S. China Pl. | 312-842-2228

$

ASIAN, CHINESE | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL 2 | BYO | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

Eighteen hours a day, every day of the week, the Sweet Station food assembly line slams out selections from a dense bill of fare that lists several hundred items ranging from pan-Asian to Hawaiian and Portuguese. We started with abrus herb and pork tongue, a flavorful broth studded with toothsome chunks of lingual tissue. Portuguese chicken is a baked casserole of creamy fowl on a bed of spaghetti, tasty if nonassertive. The squid balls were terrific, a kind of crispy seafood sausage, and the congee with ginkgo nuts and lily bulbs was a very light gruel that would make an excellent hangover breakfast. With its mammoth menu and reasonable prices, this is the kind of place that invites adventurous eating. —David Hammond

Tao Ran Ju Restaurant

2002 S. Wentworth | 312-808-1111

$

CHINESE | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS  | BYO

James An of the great Yunnanese restaurant Spring World is the man behind Tao Ran Ju, a splashy new spot on the lonely eastern edge of Chinatown Mall. Here he's specializing in hot pots, with individual induction burners built into each place setting and a choice of five individual soup bases, more than four dozen vegetable and meat add-ins, and an overwhelming array of condiments. If you want your own customized dried shrimp seafood broth and you want it with a la carte golden needle mushrooms, goose intestine, tofu puffs, and lamb slices, then this might be the place. If not, though, don't write Tao Ran Ju off by any means. Its greatest strengths are found elsewhere on the menu. The xiao long bao (soup dumplings) are prepared by a chef An poached from the legendary Taiwan-based dumpling chain Din Tai Fung; his output represents a significant advance for Chicago. And the house special beef soup (niu rou mian), is one of the most fantastic noodle dishes I've had in Chinatown, loaded with long, thin, chewy noodles in a tangy broth with big, tender chunks of beef and a garnish of pickled vegetables. An has also duplicated his cold appetizer bar from Spring World, offering a selection of any four for $4.95, an astoundingly good value. —Mike Sula

Tasty City

2022 S. Archer | 312-225-8282

$

CHINESE | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 4, OTHER NIGHTS TILL 2 | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

The menu at Tasty City offers hundreds of items, some of which might challenge even extreme eaters. Feeling adventurous, we aimed for novelty. Crispy intestines were (no kidding) the best pig guts in memory, with a red, almost caramelized crust and a tangy, sweet-and-sour-type sauce. We were likewise seduced by ribs with peach mayo, toothy strips of pork with few bones and an unusual puddinglike sauce. Congee with lettuce and balls of dace (a freshwater fish) proved refreshing and benefited from the requisite white pepper as well as a dash of chile oil; ramen contained toothy house-made noodles, beefed up with a big hunk of brisket and a bonus side of chicken tenders. —David Hammond

Three Happiness

209 W. Cermak | 312-842-1964

$

CHINESE | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: 24 HOURS EVERY DAY

Crunch into shell-on salt-and-pepper shrimp—juicy and fragrant with five-spice mix—or dry stir-fried blue crab, perfumed with ginger and scallion, and you realize that "Little" Three Happiness has an expert hand with seafood. Crisp panfried noodles groan under a shrimp-boat's catch of fresh seafood or a combination of barbecued pork and roast duck. Crispy-skinned chicken is a revelation: moist, tender meat and succulent crisp skin served with lemon wedge, Szechuan pepper-salt mix, and a topknot of cilantro. Stir-fried watercress, pea shoots with garlic, and lettuce with oyster sauce are sure to please, but for a change of pace water spinach with fermented tofu (ong choi with fu yee) is a winner. —Gary Wiviott

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