January 25, 2008

Gasteronomy—January 25, 2008

Double Li

228 West Cermak Road

$10–$20, BYOB

Well recognized by The Reader, gourmand-frequented, and any Chicago foodie you should be listening to, Double Li is making waves in Chinatown. It used to be that every time I’d go to Chinatown with U of C people, we’d go to Lao Sze Chuan: They offered up that spicy food that most places in Chinatown had watered down for the American palate. But since Double Li opened, I see no reason to go anywhere else for that kind of thing.

The menu has two sides: In English, you’ll find the standard fare you’d expect from a Sichuan spot (chili and cumin versions of chicken and lamb, respectively) as well as some surprising originals. The flip side of the menu, in Chinese, is far more extensive. Expect to see two to three times as many dishes per section. In light of the bilingual menu, and my own success with the experience, I suggest you go to Chef Li and have him order for you. If the place isn’t too busy, he’ll be more than happy to craft together a meal balanced as only chefs—and people who spend a lot of time considering their taste buds—can do.

The ideal dining experience involves getting there a bit late, say nine-ish, after the rush, in time to drink bai jiu (Chinese whiskey) at the end of the night with Chef Li. (Double Li is BYOB.) The standout dish is far and away the garlic pepper–crusted steak—tender hunks of steak which manage to be crispy on the outside, tender and moist on the inside, and impregnated with a delicious, if a tad bit sweet, garlic butter concoction. You’re probably thinking this doesn’t sound authentic, but at Double Li, you’ll find specialties from Sichuan province as well as more original creations.

Other memorable dishes include a delicate fish soup (no bones) with a broth that was light and not too salty; a chicken-tofu “pocket” dish with chicken and tofu blended in-house (the chicken adds a slight richness to the tofu); and a heavy-on-the-garlic shrimp dish. Given the quality of food and the thought put into the menu, the place clearly stands out from any restaurant in its genre. Not only does the chef pour imagination and skill into his food, but he will change the way you think of Chinese food if you let him.

May May Gourmet Food Inc.

210 West 23rd Street

$10, under $5 if need be

Tucked away on a residential street off the main strip of old Chinatown is this hole-in-the-wall place that hasn’t been written up or reported in any of Chicago’s newspapers or food blogs. May May is perhaps the polar opposite of Double Li: It’s a Styrofoam-serving takeout joint with a Midwestern feel, despite the fact that everyone there (besides me) was Asian.

I stumbled across this place on a cold day, looking for some cheap soup. And cheap soup I found—the hot and sour is under $2 and completely filling, with mushrooms, pork bits, egg, and tofu. Delicate it is not, but down-home it is. The place seems to do most of its business in takeout during the day; it closes relatively early, at 8:15 p.m. High school students drop in to chow down, but the clientèle seems to be mostly families from the area picking up dinner. On the English menu, again, is mostly standard stuff. On the dry-erase board, however, are a few translated items, the memorable ones being the house-made soup dumplings (think the converse of wonton soup: soup in a dumpling) and the scallion pancakes.

There’s generally a 20-minute wait on the food, which I take as a good sign. While the ambiance is certainly not date material, with its fluorescent lighting and white tile floors, the place, as its name suggests, is a diner in the flesh. The counter feels like it could have come from a Western. Few places survive so long doing their thing wrong.