Usually when Tony Hu opens a restaurant it's an occasion to celebrate. Either the esteemed Mayor of Chinatown introduces a heretofore novel regional cuisine such as Shanghainese, Hunnanese or Beijingese, or takes old favorites and pushes them further, or expands the influence of his flagship Lao Sze Chuan by establishing bases in underserved neighborhoods.
Lao 18 is closest to the latter. It's a shiny grab for mainstream recognition, set far away from the Chinatown cheap-eats ghetto, smack-dab on the Hubbard Street restaurant row—or what the artist and writer (and former Reader contributor) Dmitry Samarov once described as the "backwoods of Douchemenistan."
It's Hu's most audacious move yet, designed to introduce new, less adventurous eaters to his greatest hits, along with some pandering silliness to ease the gastronomically anxious. If tripe and chicken feet make you uneasy, you can always go with the Asian chicken salad.
This is completely new territory for Hu, evident by taking a quick glance around the large (often underpopulated) dining room at any given time and noting the great majority of non-Chinese diners, a demographic atypical of any of his ten other restaurants.
At first glance the menu indicates Hu isn't pulling punches. There's the boiled beef in spicy peppercorn sauce, the cumin lamb, the ma po tofu, and the signature Tony's Three Chili Chicken—all dishes known at Hu's other restaurants for their assertive, uncompromising spicing, attended by the buzzsaw humming of Sichuan peppercorn ma la, often freighted on a fearless abundance of oil.
But these dishes are unevenly replicated here, and the vaunted chicken is the most disheartening among them. Normally crunchy nuggets of fried bird tossed with fresh jalapeño and dried red chile are overburdened and sogged down by an abundance of sticky-sweet syrup. Chunks of underfried, greasy sole fillet are given barely a sprinkling of magic Sichuan peppercorns, while mushy sections of eggplant drown in an underspiced, candied glop. Otherwise nicely plump and springy Sichuan pork dumplings are barely drizzled with hot oil, about as mild and unthreatening as the anodyne house music softly piped though the dining room.
On the other hand the ma po tofu is a reasonable approximation of the hearty, softly textured bean-curd stew served in Chinatown, thick with leeks, red chile flakes, and funky fermented black beans. Shreds of lamb flesh, onions, and peppers are stir-fried with a bracing dose of cumin seeds and dried red chiles. The cold beef and tripe is as pleasantly superspiced and texturally supple and snappy as always. These are the exceptions on the truncated menu (relative to the 100-plus-item opuses at Hu's other restaurants). At least it won't overwhelm anyone with possibilities.
It's not fair to judge Lao 18 merely on its Sichuan offerings, but other regional dishes are executed with a similarly disturbing lack of finesse. Northern-style scallion pancakes with pork belly are little roulades of undercooked batter enveloping unidentifiable fillings, topped with cold plum sauce. Mushy Peking-style noodles, otherwise known as niu rou mian, sit absorbing a thin, insipid broth. Peking duck spring rolls contain barely a scrap of the promised bird, and an oddball wonton-wrapped shrimp and cheese roll doesn't seem to bear a trace of the promised dairy. Even the simplest ham and shrimp fried rice, made with pristinely white, fresh, and unseasoned grains, seems like something native to an assisted living center.
Lao 18 certainly won't challenge the canard that certain world cuisines have to be cheap and abundant to be good. Prices are significantly higher than at other Hu joints, which makes sense given the higher rents in the neighborhood. But portions are smaller too, which is less conducive to Chinese family-style eating—as is a dining room full of cramped and uncomfortable high tops.
The disappointments presented by the food make you nostalgic for the downscale charms of Chinatown. You'll see no kitchen workers trimming green beans in the dining room or enjoying their staff meal there either. The servers are mostly young, non-Asian women as out of touch with the menu as the restaurant is with its surroundings.
My three meals there were plagued by late and missing dishes, and incorrect information related by poorly trained servers—4 Rebels Dragonfruit is not a juice, as a server told me, but a vodka. Among the light, frivolous cocktails mixed at the long bar I was served an unstirred, room-temperature Sazerac mixed with Japanese whiskey. "Have you ever had a Sazerac before?" the bartender replied when I questioned its warmth.
The thing I like most about Lao 18 is that the hordes that flood places like Hub 51 and Rockit are so far ignoring it. Maybe they're not as indiscriminate as I thought. You can credibly claim that Lao 18 is the best Chinese restaurant in River North, but that isn't saying much. It mostly pains me to report that this is the first time a new Tony Hu restaurant fails to contribute something significant to Chicago.