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Chinese for Christmas?

Sixteen options in Chinatown

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Chi Cafe

2160-A S. China Pl. | 312-842-9993

$

CHINESE | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL 4 | BYO

Well-designed and bright, with mod orange and lime green accents, Chi Cafe has a spotless glassed-in kitchen and friendly, casually uniformed servers. The food tends toward the veggie-dominated Hong Kong style, with selections like wood ear mushrooms and okra, pea tips with garlic, and our favorite, Chinese chives with special sauce, a delicate stack of greens with jalapeños. The menu packs hundreds of options, including pedestrian faves like General Tso's and orange chicken, but there's plenty of edgier fare like pig's stomach, sizzling intestine, and duck's tongue with fresh mushrooms. Jellyfish with a beef hind shank hinting of star anise was a simple surf-and-turf study in contrasts, and like the congee and soups, seasoned with great restraint. In fact, even in the case of dishes labeled "hot and spicy" the heat seems dialed down, though ingredients are fresh, preparations capable, and prices very reasonable—several "special snacks" including curried fish balls and boiled kidneys are in the $4 range. —David Hammond

Double Li

228 W. Cermak | 312-842-7818

$$

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

Double Li is named for chef-owners 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

Dragon Court

2414 S. Wentworth | 312-791-1882

$

CHINESE | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL MIDNIGHT | BYO

Dragon Court is a Cantonese restaurant decorated with aquarium tanks of lobster, crab, and the astonishingly ugly monkfish. It's on the farther-than-you'd-like-to-walk-in-the-cold side of Wentworth, out on the edge of the expressway, which may explain why it gets too little praise for its excellent menu. The locals know about it, though: on a harsh, snowy night, the dining room was full. Aided by an attentive staff of abashed young Chinese men, we feasted on garlic-dusted crispy chicken, pork with bok choy and taro root, and a perfectly fried fish and tofu stew. We concluded with a truly terrific lamb and watercress hot pot spiced with star anise. —Nicholas Day

Emperor's Choice

2238 S. Wentworth | 312-225-8800

$$

CHINESE, ASIAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: MONDAY-SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT, SUNDAY UNTIL 11

One of the spiffier restaurants on the Chinatown strip, Emperor's Choice brings to mind Calvin Trillin's inverse ambience theory of Chinese restaurants; thankfully, it's the exception that proves the rule. Familiar classics are solid here: crisp, meat-filled pot stickers, a lively orange beef with good-quality bone-in meat, a wonton soup vibrant with a rich stock and shrimp-filled dumplings. Seafood is a particular strength, especially plump salt-and-pepper shrimp, Cantonese shell-on lobster, clams with black bean sauce, and whole fish preparations plus a rotating list of specials such as salt-and-pepper soft-shell crab and delicate fresh scallops served on the half shell. Szechuan string beans and mildly spicy Shanghai noodles make for a smooth segue to the more adventurous menu items such as jellyfish and succulent pork belly with preserved greens. —Gary Wiviott

Evergreen

2411 S. Wentworth | 312-225-8898

$$

CHINESE, ASIAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL 11

Not in the mood to navigate the 300-item menu at this Cantonese stalwart, I asked for a sampling of the restaurant's best. Out came tofu and seafood soup chock-full of shrimp, squid, scallops, tofu, straw mushrooms, and a healthy dose of fresh ginger. Mongolian beef, walnut shrimp, sizzling sea bass, and pea pod leaves with fried soft tofu followed. (I wasn't dining alone.) A sweet tooth's dream, the walnut shrimp are fried and coated in sweet mayonnaise; the walnuts are candied and glorious. Given its richness, it's a dish best enjoyed in small doses. When the sea bass, also fried, came to the table I was instructed to ladle it with a sauce of soy and garlic to create its namesake sizzle. No sizzle. But that didn't detract from the meltingly tender fish. —Peter Tyksinski

Golden Bull

242 W. Cermak | 312-808-1668

$

ASIAN, CHINESE | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL 1

The Bull has something for both the beef-and-broccoli set and those seeking a challenge like frog with yellow chives. A variety of impeccable Chinese greens are always on offer (usually pea pod shoots, water spinach, mustard greens, and watercress). Fried smelt, steamed whole sole, and deep-fried chicken are customer favorites. The egg rolls are fantastic, plump and greaseless. Seaweed soup is another great starter—the velvety pork broth is loaded with shrimp, ground pork, egg, and seaweed and finished with a dash of sesame oil. The salt-and-pepper fried shrimp is too salty for me, but otherwise faultless. The fried tofu is more than the menu lets on: a brown sauce covers puddinglike tofu and shiitakes. It's not the revelatory Japanese tofu with king mushrooms offered at Ken-Kee down the block, but it's close. —Peter Tyksinski

Happy Chef Dim Sum

2164 S. Archer | 312-808-3689

$

CHINESE, ASIAN | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL 2

Canton, a port city, traffics in many foods, and the Cantonese cuisine at Happy Chef reflects this delicious diversity. Party-colored papers on the walls announce tank-fresh scallops, large-mouth fish, frog, and eel; we chose tiny, sweet shrimp (sold by weight), steamed delicately and perked up with jalapeño-laced soy sauce. We also enjoyed a clay pot of bony but delicious duck with hints of ginger, orange peel, and curry. Watercress in bean-curd sauce was bright green and very fresh, with a slight chile afterburn. Dim sum, closely associated with Canton, is served daily. And though Chinese cuisine is not known for desserts (sweets are treated like snacks on the mainland), a strong choice here is "crispy milk," the liquid frozen and cut into balls, then batter fried and arrayed with Cantonese simplicity around a bowl of sugar. Happy Chef is unlikely to win any interior design awards—the tablecloths are made of Hefty bag plastic, the china is chipped, the teapots cracked—but service is friendly and the adventurous menu rewards exploration. —David Hammond

House of Fortune

2407 S. Wentworth | 312-225-0880

$$

CHINESE, ASIAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

It's a Chinese restaurant specializing in family feasts and banquet dinners. As a casual diner, it's best not to buck the trend, but rather go with a crowd and order a lazy Susan full of food. Peking duck is a signature dish in which paper-thin homemade pancakes (some of the best in Chinatown) and crispy-sweet duck skin are the stars. Preparations like Szechuan shrimp, baked Maine lobster with onions and ginger, and Dungeness crab in black bean sauce feature fresh seafood that's highlighted rather than overwhelmed by sauce. Chinese soup dumplings (called "steamed juicy buns" on the menu) are a coarse, doughy version of the real thing but still can be enjoyable. Some purists sniff at the menu as lacking authenticity, but I'd rather dine on a well-executed egg foo yong than a tired version of stir-fried innards. House of Fortune has a full bar offering umbrella-laden drinks for those looking for a night out on the town; it's also one of few Chinatown restaurants to deliver north of the Loop. —Kristina Meyer

Ken-Kee Restaurant

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

$

ASIAN, CHINESE | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL 1 | 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. It would take months to work through the menus, but 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 Shanghai

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

$$

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

It's often said that that China's largest seaport doesn't have a cuisine of its own but borrows liberally from surrounding areas. But it's true that that 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 the menu at Tony Hu's Lao Sze Chuan, but the measure of its success will be the consistency of the xiao long bao, or steamed soup dumplings. For some reason, this delicate and volatile snack is notoriously difficult to reproduce outside of China. Either the dough is too thick, the filling is poor, or—most commonly—there's no soup inside at all. At times Lao Shanghai's dumplings suffer from thickness, but at least every one I've eaten actually contained soup (though not enough), and that's why I'll damn it with faint praise by saying I've had none better in 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 unimpressive to gaze upon, but the fish 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 steamed or deep-fried buns. Want to get your waiter's attention—or the entire restaurant's? Press the handy buzzer provided on each table. —Mike Sula

Lao Sze Chuan Restaurant

2172 S. Archer | 312-326-5040

$$

Lunch, Dinner: seven days | Open Late: every night Till midnight | byo

The Saturday evening after Check, Please! featured Lao Sze Chuan a few years back, the line snaked out the door into the Chinatown Mall like it was Studio 54 and Alpana Singh and Rick Steves were doing lines in the bathroom. But Tony Hu and his celebrated Szechuan restaurant were prepared for the onslaught: dishes arrived 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. I just hope public TV fans look beyond the standards recommended on Channel 11 and dive into the endless menu, from Spicy Chengdu Chicken to Jelly Fish Shanghai, smoked tea duck, Szechuan string beans, and the elaborate double-sided hot pots. —Mike Sula

Lee Wing Wah

2147 S. China Pl. | 312-808-1628

$

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

Cantonese cuisine is characterized by light sauces and a minimum of spice or heat, which permits the natural goodness of the ingredients to shine through. We enjoyed the salt-and-pepper shrimp—fried, seasoned with little more than that, and meant to be eaten shells, heads, and all. Crispy-skin chicken came as advertised and was wonderfully meaty, seasoned again with just a touch of salt. Crab served in the shell sometimes seems more trouble than it's worth, but here it's baked with ginger and onion, two staples of Cantonese seasoning, and the shell breaks cleanly for easy access to the sweet meat. Stir-fried tong choi with spicy bean sauce is a huge platter of tender shoots, a little like spinach only more delicate, in a sauce that's a far cry from Szechuan fire; stir-fried fish fillets, flavorful and lightly breaded, could hardly get any simpler. You might try Lee Wing Wah's chicken chow mein just to see how good this dish can be: toothsome chunks of chicken over hard noodles crisped in a casserole and served with an almost neutral sauce. —David Hammond

Moon Palace

216 W. Cermak | 312-225-4081

$$

ASIAN, CHINESE | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS

Moon Palace specializes in Shanghainese chow. Regional dishes include xiao long bao (soup dumplings), several preparations showcasing eel, and Wine Favorite Soup, a milky broth of white fish and wood-ear mushrooms spiked with alcohol (another marker of a dish from Shanghai). Five Flavor Beef was a beautiful appetizer, toothsome and dense with flavor, splashed with typically sweet sauce and five-spice seasoning (anise, cinnamon, ginger, clove, and cassia). Sticky rice was also Shanghaied, sculpted into small, sweet plugs, wrapped in pastry skin, and suitable for dunking in a slurry of hot sauce, vinegar, and raw garlic. Our server insisted that the pork belly she served was actually the pork shank we ordered; still, the soft, bacony chunks were quite savory amid caramelized lard and hard-boiled egg. Chinatown restaurants frequently have make-do appointments (neon lights, linoleum), but Moon Palace is Martha'd up with wood paneling and tasteful prints on the wall. —David Hammond

Seven Treasures Cantonese Cuisine

2312 S. Wentworth | 312-225-2668

$

ASIAN, CHINESE | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL 11

The keys to happiness at Seven Treasures are many: Chinese barbecue, noodles in soup with fresh shrimp wontons, congee (rice porridge), simple vegetable dishes prepared with oyster sauce or fermented tofu. Start with a quick perusal of the gorgeous full-frontal barbecue display—crisp roast pig, succulent duck, red-tinted pork, and moist soya chicken served with astoundingly flavorful ginger-scallion oil. It's not that there isn't the full spectrum of Cantonese-American classics here—egg foo yong with lifeless cornstarch-laden gravy, a ridiculously sticky-sweet version of sweet-and-sour pork, crab Rangoon—it's just that you don't want or need them. Damn good table chile oil, service that ranges from adequate to good, and late hours help ensure Seven Treasures' continued popularity. —Gary Wiviott

Shui Wah

2162 S. Archer | 312-225-8811

$

ASIAN, CHINESE | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL 2 | BYO

It's tiny, and before 3 PM all you can get is dim sum, but in my book Shui Wah serves the best in town: made to order and consistently flawless. There are no carts languidly lapping the room; diners use an order form with prices and easy-to-understand translations. Standouts include sticky rice in lotus leaf, steamed bean curd roll stuffed with pork, shark fin dumplings, fried taro cake, and any of the rice noodle crepes. In late afternoon dim sum ceases and the restaurant owners cede Shui Wah to Tom Tong, who rents the space each evening. The odd arrangement works: Tong turns out reliable, plentiful, and often elegant renditions of Hong Kong standards. My jumbo shrimp in lemongrass and tomato sauce included a delightful carrot sculpture and sprigs of cilantro, and I had a remarkable dish of pea pod greens, the tough stems removed and only the delicate, vegetal leaves remaining. Two picture menus featuring oddities like fried whole squab and pig intestines call for a return visit. —Peter Tyksinksi

Three Happiness

209 W. Cermak | 312-842-1964

$

ASIAN, 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 (so-called because of the larger but inferior Three Happiness restaurant on Wentworth) has a more expert hand with seafood than many far more upscale restaurants. Crisp panfried noodles, rice or wheat, groan under a shrimp-boat's catch of fresh seafood or a combination of barbecued pork and five-spice-accented 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 is a winner. Owners Raymond and Betty Yau gave the place a face-lift a few years back, and it looks nice—though thankfully not so nice as to violate Calvin Trillin's inverse ambience theory of Chinese restaurants. Gary Wiviott

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