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The Sleeping Tiger Rises

A resurgent Chinatown is epitomized in MingHin Cuisine.


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There's been a lot of noise lately about an alleged restaurant renaissance in Little Italy, but as long as we're flogging historical cliches, why no talk of the sleeping tiger that is Chinatown? Just count off the hipster Hong Kong cafes, the Richland Center's subterranean food court, the baijiu-focused China Place Liquor City, Tony Hu's trippy lounge Lao You Ju, and the forthcoming Lure Izakaya from former Mulan chef Kee Chan—to say nothing of the dedicated noodle puller stoically stretching dough in the window of Hing Kee—and you'll be as surprised as I am that more food pooh-bahs (foobah to you, fouchebag) haven't noticed the once semidesolate Chinatown Square booming with lots of new and interesting places to eat.

Maybe that's because the restaurateurs of Chinatown generally don't swim in the same tepid, yellowed social-media pools that writers, chefs, and publicists wade in, rubbing each other's backs with wrinkled fingertips. Liu Ling—owner of Chi Cafe and the stalwart part-time dim-sum house Shui Wah—doesn't. Neither does her chef, Wu Ming, who commands the kitchen at MingHin Cuisine, a double-decker Hong Kong-style restaurant where the first thing you notice when you walk though the door is the glistening brown barbecued birds and pork bellies hanging behind glass in the kitchen. That Macau-style roast pork belly has indeed been slicked with a measurable share of food writers' saliva—and deservedly so. It's served in neatly sliced cubes of tender, fatty layers of flesh capped by a crispy skin fragile as crystal and served with a small bowl of lily-gilding processed sugar (you're meant to sprinkle it atop).

It's no wonder early reports on MingHin seem to focus solely on this utterly sybaritic dish. But the rest of the menu—sprawling even by Chinatown standards—yields consistently impressive preparations in bewildering variety, with a striking devotion to quality of ingredients. On one visit a server offered that the white, spongy, condomlike bamboo skins tossed among pea tips with salty and preserved egg were of the pure unadulterated variety—not the undesirable bleached sort you see in grocery stores. I never knew they existed in the first place.

In that way, MingHin seems unusually solicitous of its customers in the non-Chinese minority. Managers swoop in to engage tables on what's good that day, with no hint of condescension. Express an interest in, say, a crispy panfried omelet of bitter melon, and you'll be rewarded with all sorts of reassuring information, such as that the XO sauce and chile oil are house-made, or that the meat in the day's special crocodile soup has been simmering in a clear consomme for ten hours, sweetened with jujubes and lychee fruit—and just so happens to be good for your respiration.

It's this sort of engagement that will pay off when exploring MingHin's other key offerings, particularly its live and otherwise fresh seafood, prepared to the diner's choice, perhaps steamed or salted and peppered in a black-bean sauce, or served in a casserole or sashimi style, as practiced on live scallops dissected into thin medallions on an ice bowl ringed with vivid red grapefruit half-moons, followed by a second course of chewier musculature steamed on the half shell with bean sprouts and yellow chives. One night my table failed to do its homework and devoured a gorgeous whole red grouper steamed to optimum silkiness with garlic, ginger, and scallions. This lovely overfished creature exists with other related species in karmic imbalance with less endangered ones such as the invasive "Bighead" (aka Asian carp), oysters, or freshwater eel (weekends seem to be when most of the live sea creatures are available).

Beyond a long list of high-ticket chef's recommendations, many requiring advance orders (various iterations of abalone, shark fin, and geoduck), there's a daunting list of appetizers—soups, barbecue, pan-fried dishes, hot pots, casseroles, noodles, vegetables—that you could spend weeks of dedicated but happy exploration on. With very little disappointment I've put away the "Yummy beef varieties," tripe and intestine stewed in brown sauce with soft turnips chunks. I've slurped Westlake minced-beef soup, egg white and meat simmering in a light tea-like broth. I've chopsticked cold shredded duck salad tossed with batons of ginger and carrot, lightly dressed with sesame and vinegar.

Some might at first be puzzled by a lack of forward seasoning—particularly in the seafood, which at least in Hong Kong emphasizes the quality of the product over its preparation. But there's no chance of that with dishes such as stir-fried fatty beef with vegetables in mustard sauce, a not-particularly-pinguid mound of beef shavings, sort of like a Sino-Italian beef with a nasal-scrubbing afterburn. That's also true of the pan-fried lotus-root pork patty, juicy and bouncy with nibs of rhizome adding texture to the porky goodness. Same goes for a sizzling casserole of beef tongue and tofu, and the most skillfully executed plate of Singapore noodles I've ever come across, with distinct strands that resisted clumping, tossed with fat, popping-fresh shrimp.

From 9 PM to 2 AM MingHin offers a dim sum menu, slightly reduced from morning offerings that with any justice will evolve into a near-south-side triage center for the overserved. Look for soft and crispy panfried turnip cakes studded with bits of cured pork or dense, roe-topped pork and beef siu mai, or plump and tender baby cuttlefish swimming in a thin curried broth.

All of this is presented in an elegant environment with elaborately decorated private rooms—red lanterns, lacquered woods, soft high-backed upholstered chairs, bone china, and heavy chopsticks on the tables (check the ceramic teapot collection at the rear entrance). And I defy you to make it to your table without greetings from at least four staffers. With all of this MingHin sets a new bar for Cantonese—and Chinatown in general—in terms of style, service, and, most importantly, food.


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