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Chinatown's subterranean Snack Planet

A new stall in an underground food court offers Sichuanese shashlik and more

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Shashlik at Snack Planet - JEFFREY MARINI

It's been just over a year since I wrote about the basement food court in Richland Center. Back then it was a large, echoing, and, frankly, depressing subterranean space at the far eastern end of the Chinatown mall, removed from significant foot traffic, and with little evidence of its presence to attract any. But a budding entrepreneur had opened a teppanyaki stand, and he was griddling okonomiyaki and takoyaki, rare items in this burg that gave me hope for the space as a kind of incubator for specialists who may not have the capital to go full-throttle brick-and-mortar.

The food court still hasn't been discovered by the crowds flocking to the new spots that have opened aboveground during Chinatown's ongoing renaissance. But it has come a long way, more than doubling its budget-friendly food stalls with a banh mi purveyor, a noodle joint, and a cafe serving coffee, ice cream, and Hong Kong-style waffles.

And then there's Snack Planet, with a long, glossy checklist menu offering an assortment of cold dishes, noodles, soups, sweets, and a surprisingly large array of "shashlik."

The last seem oddly out of place at first, but these aren't the hearty grilled Middle Eastern or eastern European meat swords you might be familiar with. Instead there are 36 varieties of meats and vegetables to choose from, each order consisting of four or five little bites threaded onto thin wooden skewers and boiled in a roiling pot of spiced cooking oil, like a combination of hot pot and Japanese oden. On my initial reconnaissance my first taste was eye-opening: a quartet of perfectly cooked quail eggs with a soft, pillowy texture, infused with the slight but unmistakable buzz of Sichuan peppercorn. Sticks of pierced cocktail weenies, chunks of cauliflower ("white broccoli" per the menu), and bean curd sheets were nice too, and in total, a great value. Skewers run 50 cents apiece for vegetarian selections such as lotus root, eggplant, wheat gluten, mushroom, and bok choy, and $1 for fleshier bits like meatballs, fish balls, chicken kidneys, shrimp, squid, and pig's blood. You can easily make a meal of them for $5.

But what was truly revelatory was a sampling of the cold dishes: a large plastic takeout container of jellylike wood-ear mushrooms (good for the circulation) and an equally sizable portion of "Laganma chili paste with beef"—a mound of matchsticked bamboo draped with slice after slice of tender beef shank smothered in the spicy, earthy black bean chile sauce properly known as LaoGanMa, an oft-counterfeited brand with a cultlike following among Asian condiment aficionados. Another big $2.99 "cold dish" called Nanshan spicy chicken had chopped bits of bird bathing in vibrant chile oil, sprinkled with peanuts and cilantro. Considering the portion sizes and quality of these so-called snacks, Snack Planet was offering outstanding value—there's nothing on the menu over $3.50.

A young fellow sweating over a big bowl of soup at the table adjoining ours told us that the food was "northern" in style before heading back to the counter for seconds. To me, it had a lot in common with the spicy, numbing qualities of Sichuan cuisine.

Maybe I was tipped off by the long strands of stuffed toy chiles hanging next to the register, but I was right. The next day I brought along some pals, including Ben Li, chef and owner of the Chinatown Sichuanese restaurant Double Li and a native of that province's second city—Chongqing, known for its blistering hot pots.

"This dish tastes like my hometown," he said, referring to the LaoGanMa beef dish.

It turned out that Snack Planet—which opened almost two months ago—is owned by Li's friend Mon Liang, who aims to cater to Chicago's newer population of northern Chinese, including many students eating on tight budgets. When she says "northern," she means relative to her hometown, Jiangmen, in the southeastern coastal province of Guangdong, where the Cantonese eat lots of seafood relative to meat and use very little spice.

Liang says she learned to love Sichuanese food when she was in business school and roommates from the north taught her how to cook and eat it. After she emigrated, she met her chef, who was a customer of the food wholesaler she worked for in Chinatown. Shao-xin Fang, formerly of Tasty City, turns out to be a native of Chongqing too, which was why his food was so familiar to Li, though he admitted that the shashlik are a lot less spicy than the ones sold on the streets back home.

Fang's menu is considerably more full flavored than the Hong Kong-style food he was cooking at his old job. He slices and skewers each shashlik to order. He drenches cold slices of pork in a mixture of minced garlic, oil, and vinegar like a Cuban mojo. He tosses a textural melee of mushrooms with chile oil, and simmers medicinal birds like pigeon or black chicken with ginseng in clear but potent broth. The endless bowl that the kid had powered down the day before was filled with long tentacular mung bean noodles, dosed with chiles and tart black vinegar, and covered in sheets of beef shank. A nearly insurmountable pile of offal, five-spiced lung and tripe has the taste of blood and the texture of sponge.

And there's plenty to reward good children who finish their guts: deep-fried rice gluten balls stuffed with sweet bean paste; zha xian nai, oblong crispy milk fritters with an oozing custardy interior; a sweet cool soup of black beans with tangerine peel, and another with sunset-colored pumpkin and clouds of white fungus.

It's remarkable the variety of things Fang is able to conjure from his tightly packed little kitchen. If more chefs like him squeezed themselves into the Richland Mall food court, it could become a place to seek out rather than one to stumble upon.

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