That buzzing in your head? It's Lao Ma La

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cauliflower in hot mini wok
You can't take a step in the vicinity of Chinatown in these times without putting your foot in a roiling hot pot, particularly those built around a single whole fish (frequently tilapia), bathing in a murderously spicy, oily brew of chiles, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, and other potent aromatics. Skewers are big too, and with the proliferation of places like Ma Gong La Po, Snack Planet, Bridgeport's new Home Style Taste (more about that one soon), and Lao Yunnan, this northern Chinese style of eating seems to be in ascendance much in the way of the Hong Kong/Taiwanese cafe wave of a few years back.

You didn't think this would pass without Tony Hu getting in the game, did you? Actually, the idea behind Lao Ma La, his takeover of Kee Chan's Lure Izakaya, is less regionally focused than it is flavor-based, or rather, pain-based. "Ma La" corresponds to the pinyin characters 麻, for "numbing," and 辣, for "spicy," the addictive buzzing sensation that results from eating a lot of Sichuan peppercorns and chiles. That's what Lao Ma La is all about.

Though the main features of the menu are relatively truncated for a Hu spot, there is a great variety of stuff on hand, most of it duplicative of his other places. Skewer hot pots—a wide selection of meats, vegetables, and seafood on sticks—get top billing, along with "grilled fish in pan" and solo a la carte charcoal-grilled skewers. The second quarter of the menu is concerned with smaller mini woks based on single ingredients such as cauliflower (pictured), chicken giblets, or string beans augmented with other vegetables.

sliced pork belly with mashed garlic
  • Mike Sula
  • Sliced pork belly with mashed garlic

As you might expect given the restaurant's concentration on ma la, it's a bit of a challenge to build a multidimensional meal, though if you stray into the soups, appetizers, and snacks, you can find more variety in generous portions. A big bowl of tender cold-poached pork belly in a sweetish, spicy sauce with a ton of garlic provides something of a relief from the onslaught, as does the Chengdu-style noodle salad—wheat noodles tossed with crunchy crushed peanuts. These in particular are hefty portions, and hovering in the $5-$6 range, are very student friendly (the demographic much of the new Chinatown seems to cater to). And then there's the back half of the menu, given over to a more varied selection of familiar things like map po tofu and kung pao chicken, which share space with some of the greatest hits from the Hu empire, like boiled beef in spicy Sichuan sauce and Sichuan string beans. One surprising anomaly: where's Lao Sze Chuan's signature three-chile chicken?

While the menu may be amped in terms of Scoville units, the slick, neon, Tron-like atmosphere of Lure has been toned down. Many of the disco floor lights have been turned off, and dim, flickering overheads turned on, illuminating cardboard boxes of imported dry goods next to the kitchen and bathroom, or the occasional cook cleaning green beans at a table. Pretty familiar for Chinatown, but the relatively deep bar inherited from Lure is not. Perhaps the staff doesn't quite know what to do with it. Nothing goes better with spicy food than whiskey, and when I ordered a Jim Beam on the rocks (the only bourbon in stock) I received a tumbler filled with what must have been a quarter bottle. Or maybe in an effort to conform to the rest of the neighborhood, they're trying to drain the stock. I hope not. Lure was one of the few places in Chinatown you could drink as well as you could eat.

Lao Ma La, 2017 S. Wells, 312-225-8989

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