It’s clear that Chicagoans want some guidance when choosing restaurants in Chinatown and ordering Chinese food, in general. In anticipation of “Craving: Chinese Food,” this month’s installment of our ongoing series, we asked “What do you want to know about Chinese food, restaurants and culinary traditions in Chicago?” And you asked, sending in dozens of questions for our reader interaction series, “What’s the Story?”
In Chinatown, you wanted to know who has the most authentic food, the best food, who does what best. And on the more granular level, you wanted to know “Why do egg rolls taste like peanut butter?” and “Where can you get peanut-flavored egg rolls like the ones at Pekin House?”
We’ll answer the Chinatown questions in our definitive guide to the best places to eat in the neighborhood, coming Monday. For the egg rolls, watch for Louisa Chu’s exploration of the origin of the Chicago specialty during our “Craving: Fried Foods” coverage in March.
As for the rest of the questions, we’ve gathered the best of them here, in a “What’s the Story?” speed round. This approach proved a popular way to answer a host of queries about Chicago dining in December. This time, we’ve gathered 11 questions, from Where can you find Cantonese style snails? to What happened to restaurateur Ben Moy? to Why do people eat chicken feet?
And if you have a question about Chicago food and dining, send it to us in the form at the bottom of this article.
Now, on to the questions.
— Joe Gray
Q: Chicken feet? Why? I just don’t get it. Is there even any meat on them?
A: You’re not there for the meat — you can get that from other chicken parts. You’re there for the savory, spicy and sweet sauce that sinks into the gelatinous part that is braised within an inch of its life, clinging onto the tiny bones. Chicken feet (aka phoenix claws) are fun to eat and really delicious. In a world that is gravitating toward nose-to-tail style of eating, Chinese people have been there for ages.
— Grace Wong
Q: Whatever happened to Ben Moy, whose restaurant, The Bird, was a big part of suburban Chinese cuisine? Does anyone else make good stuffed wings?
A: In the 1980s into the early 1990s, Ben Moy’s The Bird was consistently ranked as Chicago’s best Chinese restaurant in the Zagat Survey (which is based on responses by diners), despite the restaurant’s moves from Skokie to Glenview to Evanston to, finally, Melrose Park. It’s not difficult to understand why. Chef Moy was a true individualist; his hand-written menu featured only six appetizers and six entrees, and he happily incorporated Western influences into his cooking (such as stir-fried lamb with rosemary). The Bird was BYO; even though Moy’s prices were high by Chinese-restaurant standards, dining there was never an expensive evening out.
Moy was also an avid gardener and grew the flowers that adorned his restaurant’s tables. Moy liked to say that roses were his favorite because their beauty is more consistent, and their blooming season longer.
The “stuffed wings” you referenced was one of The Bird’s signature dishes. Titled “Wing of the Bird,” it was a wing-shaped piece of boneless chicken, stuffed with finely chopped crabmeat, shrimp and mushrooms; Moy steamed the chicken before deep-frying it to an irresistible golden brown.
The Bird closed in 1994 after a freak accident in which a car crashed through the kitchen wall. The Bird never reopened, though Moy opened a cooking school (rumored to be a secret dining club — even in the underground-restaurant game, Moy was ahead of his time) in Oak Park.
Ben Moy cooked well into his 70s; he passed away in June 2016, at age 92. He had one heck of a blooming season.
As to where to find stuffed wings like Moy’s, we haven’t seen them anyplace else. If readers have, let us know.
— Phil Vettel
Q: I want to know where I can purchase forbidden rice in Lake County. I would like to cook with it.
A: Whole Foods Market in Deerfield (760 Waukegan Road). Look for the black grains in the rice and pasta aisle. The store normally stocks the Lotus Foods brand ($4.99 for 15 ounces), which trademarked the Forbidden Rice name. Legend has it the rice was once reserved for emperors as it was treasured for providing health and longevity, and forbidden to commoners. When cooked, the color changes to deep purple, and the texture becomes slightly soft but not quite sticky, with a mildly roasted and nutty taste. Some still seek out this organic Forbidden Rice, grown in the Black Dragon River valley in Northeast China, primarily for its health benefits.
— Louisa Chu
Q: Is there a restaurant that serves Cantonese-style snails? Jade East on Cermak used to, but it’s long closed.
A: Yes, you can find your long lost snails at New Chinatown (207 W. Cermak Road), right across from the former Jade East space, now home to Ahjoomah’s Apron Korean restaurant. Simply point to the picture on the wall, or look under the seafood section of the menu for “stir-fried stone snail” ($10.95). They’re marked with a chile pepper, but I barely detected any heat. You can order not spicy too, which is how I remember them at Jade East, where my family dined often, and which is more typical of the Cantonese dish. You can also find them as off-the-menu specials, based upon availability; last weekend Seafood Harbor (2131 S. Archer Ave.) had them too. For those unfamiliar with the dish, the snails are small, about the size of a marble, and stir-fried in black bean sauce. Take one, suck off the savory sauce, then use one of the toothpicks always provided to pluck out the tiny bit of meat.
Q: (Are there) Chinese restaurants using fresh, self-grown produce?
A Yes, Oriental Food House (665 Pasquinelli Drive, Westmont) in the International Plaza Shopping Center food court in Westmont. Owner Gene Chen said his brother grows some of their produce on his farm, most notably bitter melon during the summer. Otherwise, self-farm-to-table Chinese restaurants haven’t yet emerged around Chicagoland, like Smyth and The Loyalist, Arbor Project or Hearth & Market. Meanwhile, if you go to the Westmont food court, also consider the Food House Taiwanese oyster omelet ($7.95) and, at Yu Ton, the signature savory deep-fried youtiao long crullers with soy milk — the latter, weekends only.
Q: Is there any organic and/or healthy restaurant in Chinatown?
A: Not exactly, but Mandarin Kitchen (2143 S. Archer Ave.) offers what it calls a nutritious soup as one of its hot pot broths. It’s a milky pork bone broth with traditional herbal tonic soup ingredients, including goji berries. You can now get three broths in the so-called Benz pot, that looks something like the Mercedes star. Mandarin offers an all-you-can-eat hot pot menu ($18.95), from which you can choose lots of leafy green vegetables, like watercress and tofu, from bean curd skin to frozen cubes.
Q: Where can I find the Shanghai dish known as “beggar’s chicken”?
A: Nowhere in Chicagoland yet. Shanghainese restaurants Moon Palace and Shanghai Terrace don’t have it on their menus, but Kelly Cheng, co-owner of the James Beard award-winning Sun Wah BBQ, said the restaurant has been working on a modern, less messy version. Traditionally the clay-wrapped whole stuffed chicken slow-roasts for four to six hours. There are a few stories behind its name, one of the most common that a hungry beggar stole a chicken, buried it in mud to hide it and later cooked the encased bird, thus inventing a legendary dish.
Q: Are there any Chinese restaurants in Chinatown that are peanut- and tree nut-free that would be safe for families with nut allergies?
A: No. Peanuts, tree nuts and peanut oil are commonly used in Chinese cooking, and there is no restaurant in Chinatown that has declared itself safe for those with nut allergies.
Q: Many Chinese restaurants used to serve pressed duck. I believe it was also called war shu duck. Where can we get it today?
A: Pressed duck is a Cantonese dish in which duck is steamed, deboned, flattened, steamed a second time and deep fried. It can be served hot or cold. This dish was “very popular in North American Chinese restaurants in the mid 1900s, where it was often served hot in a sauce with crushed almonds sprinkled on top,” according to CooksInfo.com, the online food encyclopedia.
We live now, of course, in the opening decades of the 21st century, and simply put, tastes and styles can change. Pressed duck is out there, but you have to look for it. An online search turned up these restaurants serving the dish in the Chicago area:
Lee Wing Wah: Pressed duck with mashed taro stuffing $17.95. 2147 S. China Place, 312-808-1628.
Mee Mah Restaurant: Pressed duck, $11.95. 4032 W. Peterson Ave., 773-539-2277.
Orange Garden Restaurant: The city’s oldest Chinese restaurant offers pressed duck for $12.95. 1942 W. Irving Park Road, 773-525-7479.
Palace Cantonese Restaurant: Almond pressed duck, which is described on the menu as “seasoned boneless pressed duck on a bed of stir-fried Cantonese vegetables.” $11. 9236 Waukegan Road, Morton Grove, 847-966-2231.
You referred to pressed duck as “war shu duck.” CooksInfo.com notes the dish is also called “wor shu duck,” “wor shu op,” “steamed deep-fried pressed duck” or “Chinese pressed duck.” You might want to ask for it under one of these names if “pressed duck” gets you no where.
— Bill Daley
Q: Why is it often so difficult to be served authentic Chinese cuisine if you don’t look/sound Chinese? Even if one menu, two cuisines.
A: Considering I’m not Chinese and just spent the past month visiting 35 different Chinese restaurants, I feel qualified to answer this question. I’ll start with the second part. You’re totally right that some restaurants offer two completely different menus.
The English menu at Kam Fung on 22nd Place in Chinatown features typical Chinese-American items like chop suey and beef with broccoli. But turn to the back, and you’ll notice only Chinese text. Thanks to my colleagues Grace Wong and Louisa Chu, I was able to translate many of the dishes, and, sure enough, they were totally different from the dishes listed in English.
While it may be easy to claim some grand conspiracy, I have a feeling that the truth is much more boring. Like all restaurateurs, the owners of Chinese restaurants genuinely want you to enjoy your meal. If you complain or leave a bad Yelp review, that could negatively affect their business. So many owners make assumptions, and sadly the assumption out there is that most white people don’t like spicy food or meat from any part but the loin.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to fix this. Just ask! When I tried to order spicy pig ears at Kuan Zhai Alley in the basement food court of the Richland Center, the person taking my order straight up told me that I wouldn’t like it. I insisted that I could handle it, and he eventually relented. That’s all it took. (By the way, it was only moderately spicy.)
Be honest with your waiter about your comfort with Chinese dishes, and he or she will usually give you the good stuff. Very occasionally a language barrier will get in the way, but it never hurts to ask.
— Nick Kindelsperger
Q: Which came first: the Chinese dumpling, ravioli or the pierogi?
A: Like noodles and the printing press, dumplings most likely originated in China.
Last year, the Food & Dining team spent a whole month covering dumplings, which gave me time to do a little research on the subject. According to Corinne Trang’s “Essentials of Asian Cuisine,” the first recorded existence of the dish was around 200 B.C. during the Han Dynasty.
While most people agree on that fact, the world of dumplings is a ridiculously confusing one, and it all starts with the name. The word dumpling is an English word that wasn’t widely used until the 16th or 17th century, according to Barbara Gallani’s “Dumplings: A Global History.” At first, it only referred to the kind of dumplings made with a small piece of dough simmered in a liquid, like gnocchi or matzo balls. For some insane reason, the word went on to describe Chinese dumplings, even though they don’t have much in common with the original English definition of the word.
Fortunately, just about all dumplings are delicious, and eating them doesn’t require a serious history lesson.