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I arrived late at Dolo Restaurant and Bar, located a little southwest of the primary Chinese restaurant area that spans Archer and Cermak in Chinatown, and my friends had already been through the menu and decided on some things to order. One of those things was a big platter of crayfish and crab; we were interested to see what the Chinese interpretation would be. It arrived a few minutes later, and to our surprise it proved to be nothing more nor less than a seafood boil like you might find in some place in Maine called Ye Old Fish Shanty or in Shreveport or anywhere else they catch up stuff like this: red crawfish mixed with crab legs, half ears of corn, boiled potatoes . . . and some sausages which one member of our group identified, based on extensive experience in childhood, as Hebrew National hot dogs.
It was a mystifying dish for a new and rather snazzy-looking Chinese restaurant, but hot dogs aside, it made sense insofar as it was seafood focused. The menu covers a lot of Cantonese bases, but our waiter made it clear that their pride was in the seafood portion. We ordered a number of dishes including clams, a couple of cuttlefish dishes with Chinese flavors and spices, and a delicate scallop dish served on the shell in a bed of cellophane noodles, which wouldn't have been out of place at a considerably fancier restaurant.
A few days later I was speaking to Dolo's manager, Jason Moy. He has restaurant experience and is related to the owners of at least one longtime Chinatown spot, Evergreen (the name Moy is common in the Chinese restaurant community), though for the last couple of years he's worked mainly as a wedding and event photographer. He explained the fish boil's presence on the menu: "One of the owners, he loves crawfish. And he said no matter what, he wanted to sell that here. We came up with the boil, and our head chef tried it out, and he said, 'I think this one will sell.' We let our friends try it and they all loved it. We were the second restaurant in Chicago to do crawfish—the first was Saigon Sisters—and now you have Angry Crab and others."
I asked about the three owners, if they were restaurant veterans, and he said no, they're all professionals in other fields who came together on this place as their first restaurant. "They're all young people. One's a grad student who got a bachelor's degree from NIU, one has a master's degree in marketing, he's an international student from China. One really loves food, one wants to turn this into a nightlife atmosphere—that's not done yet, obviously. But we were all really good friends and we were just like, hey, let's try to put something together to change the idea of Chinatown."
I asked him what he meant by that. "We are a destination," he said. "We're not your walking distance from the Red Line place, we're not visible by the naked eye. You drive past us, that's the only way you're going to know about us, or word of mouth. We have to be different, we have to have food that's different." Fresh seafood was what they settled on as their differentiator—and if my friends and I could have doubted it from what we ate that night, we would have been quickly set straight. As we were leaving, we saw live crustaceans being delivered and placed in the tanks in the restaurant, including shrimp and an enormous dungeness crab.
"We're trying to do more fresh seafood," Moy said. "We've had live conch, live geoduck. Live abalone—that's really rare to get, they're really expensive." The style of cooking is Cantonese, but he said, "We're trying to bring more fusion-Cantonese dishes—you go to Chinatown, everything's the same, you have to stand out. There's a lot of competition—and it's not a friendly market." The chef, Ming Chen, had been helping another new restaurant in Chinatown develop its menu, but liked the attitude of the owners at Dolo and decided to join them, developing not only the dinner menu but a full dim sum menu for daytime service as well (more on that later in the week).
They opened in February. "Funny story," Moy said. "We weren't actually open yet, we were going through a training phase with our servers, and one guy walks in and decides that he wants to eat. And if you read the first review on Yelp—that's the guy! We didn't have a cash register, we couldn't process credit cards yet, and he made a complaint on Yelp about it."
Dolo Restaurant and Bar, 2222 S. Archer, 312-877-5117.