You could call them Chinese Rich Melmans, or maybe the Asian Levy Brothers, except that they're not related. In fact George Kuan and Austin Koo don't even like each other very much anymore. But over the last 20 years, working together and separately, the two entrepreneurs have established a remarkable dynasty of restaurants, educating local palates in a wide range of provincial cooking and serving the best Chinese food in Chicago.
Until the late 60s, eating Chinese meant eating Cantonese. Szechwan's culinary fires raged first in New York, then a few scattered spots opened in Chicago neighborhoods. Then in 1973 Austin Koo opened the House of Hunan on Lincoln near Belmont, and the spicy cuisine of another province had arrived. George Kuan joined him a year later, and the restaurant did so well that by 1977 they had managed to open another one downtown, on North Michigan. What followed was an explosion of new restaurants that expanded on Mandarin and provincial cuisines.
This great American success story begins, of course, in China. Koo was born Kao-Tung in Hupei province in 1934, trained as a lawyer in Taiwan, and came to the States in 1972 with a wife and $2,000 cash. He opened his first restaurant, the Peking Orchid Room, in Edgewater that year. Here he claims to have introduced "soong" dishes to the city--spicy meldings of minced meats and veggies wrapped taco-style in a lettuce leaf.
Kuan, born Yong Ming in Nanking in 1939, was educated in Japan, where his father was a diplomat; he came to the U.S. in 1964 to study computer science at Oregon State. He then left the field for New York and the restaurants of David Keh--the guy who introduced New Yorkers to Szechuan and Hunan food. It was in New York that Kuan met his wife, Susie, who was studying accounting and who still serves as the accountant for his restaurants.
The House of Hunan at 535 N. Michigan was an instant hit--and it remains one of the best spots around. In 1981 the pair opened Szechwan House only a block away, at the corner of Michigan and Ohio, and had another smash. Then they took over Dr. Shen's in Newberry Plaza and renamed it Hunan Palace; though it received critical acclaim, business didn't quite measure up. Today it is called Memories of China, owned by Koo and a Caucasian banker partner; by the time it opened, the relationship between Koo and Kuan had cooled decisively.
Kuan bought out Koo's interest in the House of Hunan on Michigan, but retains an interest in Szechwan House along with Alfred Hsu and others.
From here it gets complicated: Kuan opened House of Hunan in Oak Brook without Koo; Koo opened one in Schaumburg without Kuan. Koo also opened a Szechwan House in Cleveland and founded Szechwan Pavilion in Skokie, the Sandpiper--now Little Szechwan--in Highland Park, Marco Polo in Evanston, and Szechuan Restaurant in Olympia Fields.
He also opened Oriental Expresses at Illinois Center and on West Adams and Austin Koo's Mandarin on West Adams, then sold off all his suburban restaurants.
With Charles Lin, Koo founded another Gold Coast gem, T'ang Dynasty, which not only serves brilliant cuisine but is one of the prettiest restaurants in the city. Recently Koo sold his interest in it and announced plans to open a Szechwan House in Glenview.
Now both Kuan and Koo have just opened up two more restaurants, but not together. Kuan established Hunan Cafe, just across the street from Szechwan House, and Koo--in partnership with the talented Hsu--founded Little Szechwan on Diversey between Broadway and Sheridan, where Lincoln Park meets Lakeview.
Recent visits to both places proved to be more than pleasant experiences, fully in keeping with their pedigrees.
Little Szechwan, more of a neighborhood place than its kin, is small, cozy, well-appointed, and carefully managed under the watchful eye of Hsu's wife, Kail.
Starters include a properly spicy cold noodle salad, strewn with chicken shards and dressed in a peppery peanut sauce ($3.95). There's an equally peppery, flavorful Asian pasta with snails ($4.95) and a crisp Taiwan chicken roll, its tofu wrapper filled with zesty but not spicy hot minced breast meat ($4.95).
A unique item is a twist on your basic shrimp toast: the toast is lightly coated with Chinese shrimp pate and a whole butterflied shrimp before it's deep-fried ($4.95 for two).
While the hot and sour soup ($1.75) was flavorful, it came off as neither spicy hot nor vinegar-sour as I prefer, so I doctored it at the table.
I'm not much of a mu-shu fan but my companion was, so we tasted the chicken version ($7.50). She found it above average and I agreed.
Crispy duck was just that, and redolent of licoricelike five-spice seasoning ($9.95). The crispy fish didn't quite live up to its name, but the chunks of orange roughy were otherwise flavorful, aided as they were by a vigorous garlicky sauce ($9.95).
Kuan's Hunan Cafe, in a garden-level location that has proved to be a graveyard of restaurants past, is not as casual as you might expect from its name. It's about as classy looking as House of Hunan, and its menu and prices are similar in many ways--and that's not a complaint. Also, though this restaurant is below ground level, it has big windows with views of Michigan Avenue.
We bypassed standards, such as the stuffed crab claws that Kuan's restaurants always do beautifully ($6.95), in favor of the novel deep-fried but greaseless potato croquettes laden with finely chopped shrimp ($4.95). This dish was a true winner, as was the appetizer called "crispy curls of fried shrimp, slightly sweet" in a portion easily shared by three or four ($8.95).
The cold starter of Shanghai-style smoked fish was rich and slightly unctuous but stimulating to the palate ($5.95). Our one indulgence in an old favorite, hacked or "bon bon" chicken in a chili-laden peanut sauce, was right on target ($5.95).
A vegetarian entree of three kinds of mushrooms sauteed in a glistening brown sauce had a deeply satisfying woodsy flavor ($8.95). Tea-and-camphor smoking lent body to the Szechwan duck, one of my favorite dishes, which was beautifully executed here ($12.95). Sea cucumber with fish roe in brown sauce is one of those gentle, unusual dishes best savored for its slightly gelatinous texture rather than for any definitive taste ($13.95).
Apart from these, the menu includes fine versions of classics such as Hunan prawns ($14.95), orange beef ($12.95), and spiced kung bao lamb ($12.95).
Little Szechwan, 543 W. Diversey, is open 11:30 to 10 Monday through Friday and 4:30 to 10:30 Saturday and Sunday; 472-0001.
Hunan Cafe, 625 N. Michigan, is open 11:30 to 10:30 every day; 482-9898.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Steven D. Arazmus.