"Naperville's finest niu rou mian," tweeted a certain local food critic recently, with a link to a picture of the soup we were lunching on at Mapo Restaurant.
"That's almost like saying: Chicago's best Chik Fil A franchise," another local food critic tweeted back.
But in fact Naperville and its west-suburban neighbors are home to many notable versions of this beloved Chinese beef noodle soup, not to mention hard-to-find specialties like hand-pulled noodles and the medicinal herb soup bak kat teh. And there's a good reason for this. As in the outliers of other metropolitan centers—the San Gabriel Valley outside LA, Flushing, Queens—critical mass has created a demand for a representative authentic cuisine. Chinese account for around 3 to 4 percent of the population in suburbs like Naperville, Westmont, and Lisle, and the broader Asian population accounts for just under 10 percent. That's according to the 2000 census; more recent demographic data shows that approximately 40,000 Chinese live throughout suburban Chicagoland—significantly more than in Chicago proper.
In 1975 the newly established Bell Labs brought a large influx of Taiwanese engineers, scientists, and other professionals to then-rural Naperville. Soon after, the company founded the Northern Chinese Association (now the Northern Illinois Chinese Association) to help the large numbers of new expats integrate into mainstream American society. As the population grew, other Asian organizations arose to serve the community, including the Naperville Chinese School, which holds weekly Mandarin classes, and the Xilin Asian Community Center, a nonprofit that runs after-school and senior programs and hosts the annual Lantern Festival, featuring the kung-fu mastery of Shaolin monks.
Chinese restaurants in the western suburbs tend to reflect both regional allegiances and a regard for the pan-Asian community. Taiwanese-owned Fabulous Noodles (4663 Old Tavern Rd., Lisle, 630-305-8868, fabulousnoodles.com) prepares amazingly good renditions of Cantonese classics like beef with bitter melon over wok-blistered chow fun noodles or lo bak go, panfried turnip cake studded with nuggets of crispy cured pork. Yet the chef has the chops to switch gears and deliver a rock-solid version of northern-style vegetarian chicken (marinated tofu skin rolled and filled with bamboo shoots and shiitakes) or Hong Kong-style wonton noodle soup, as well as chop suey and kung pao. The former co-owners of Fabulous Noodles execute an almost identical menu equally well at Noodles Delight (853 E. Nerge, Roselle, 630-307-1010, noodlesdelight.com).
Tang Dynasty (3416 S. Route 59, Naperville, 630-355-6688, tangdynastynaperville.com) employs a Taiwanese chef in addition to one from the mainland, but the winningest dishes are on the—untranslated—menu featuring northern Chinese cuisine. Though the owner has no plans to provide an English translation, he'll happily recommend dishes, some of which can also be found on the regular menu under house specialties. On a recent visit he steered us toward classics like vegetarian chicken, fish fillet with pickles, dongpo pork ("red-braised" with soy, wine, and caramelized sugar), and thin-shaved cold, spicy beef and maw (tripe). The English menu seems to cater mainly to non-Asians, offering Americanized standards like egg foo young, sweet-and-sour pork, and cashew chicken—all pretty tasty.
Mapo Restaurant (1563 N. Naperville Wheaton Rd., 630-420-1388, maporestaurant.com) showcases renditions of its namesake spicy tofu dishes, among the finest to be found anywhere in the Chicago area—in particular the version made with fish. House-made roasted chile oil gives items like ma-la ("spicy, numbing") beef tendon and Szechuan wontons an unexpected vibrancy without the expected searing heat.
The menu is mostly Szechuan, but some of Mapo's most popular dishes are Taiwanese. The aforementioned niu rou mian is a lunchtime favorite for employees of nearby Alcatel-Lucent—the latest incarnation of Bell Labs—and often sells out early on weekends. It has a bold beef broth, made with a strong blend of star anise and Szechuan peppercorn, loaded with chunks of tender beef and respectable noodles and topped with zha cai (Szechuan pickled cabbage). The popular Taiwanese rice box with pork belly, braised tofu and egg, quick pickled cabbage, and ground pork atop a bed of white rice is a deal at $7.50.
There are other cures for urban myopia out here. Naperville's huge Super H Mart (1295 E. Ogden, 630-778-9800, hmart.com) offers exotic groceries and a pan-Asian food court. Katy's Dumpling House (790 Royal St. George Dr., #115-116, Naperville, 630-416-1188; 665 N. Cass, Westmont, 630-323-9393; katysdumpling.com) is renowned for its beautiful hand-pulled noodles. In the parking lots of some restaurants you'll find vendors selling organic Chinese vegetables out of vans. And it's not just Chinese cuisine and culture out there—equally impressive Indian, Korean and eastern European suburban communities have also established rich ethnic enclaves that support some of the finest restaurants of their kind.