Last Friday, Nina and Tim Zagat (yes, that Zagat), published an OP-ED in the NYTimes arguing that Chinese food in this country pales tremendously in comparison to other Asian cuisines available here, and especially to Chinese food in China. The Zagats decry the gloppy, indistinct and inauthentic Chinese food that Americans are used to, praise the myriad regional cuisines alive and well in China, and predict that when this food finally arrives on our shores, it will cause a sea change in American culinary perceptions of Chinese food. The Zagats claim that the main factor preventing this from happening immediately is the difficulty that Chinese chefs have in getting visas to come to the United States and open restaurants.
Well, we’ll leave that last part alone because we don’t know if the visa issue is factually true, or even relevant (the Zagats’ anecdotes about it notwithstanding). But we think it’s worth pointing out that Chicago has some notable regional and high-end Chinese restaurants that don’t fall into the egg rolls and chop suey category of American comfort food:
• Opera, in the South Loop, draws from Sichuan, Cantonese, Hunanese and Hainanese traditions, but finishes dishes with a new American twist (for example, your Crisp Eight Immortal Squid will come with garlic mayonnaise, sweet chili and 5 spice dipping salt, for $7)
• Mulan in Chinatown is full-on Chinese fusion, from the fecund mind of Kee Chan, who also brought us live-kill sashimi at Heat. Here, you’ll find a Berkshire pork strip loin served with crab dumplings and a spicy plum sauce, for $24
• Shanghai Terrace is part of the Penninsula Hotel collection, and features Shanghaiese cuisine, as well as an extensive (and expensive) dim sum menu. The Shanghai Terrace Clay Baked Chicken with lotus leaf and sweet rice runs $36, but is the real deal
• Lao Sze Chuan is an inexpensive but perfectly authentic Sichuan restaurant in Chinatown, with a tremendously large menu that offers the American basics along with seemingly the entire repertoire of Sichuan cooking (the Dry Chili Rabbit for $11.95 will change your personal definition of spicy)
So yes, Virginia, there is real Chinese food in America, if you know where to look.
Eating Beyond Sichuan [NYTimes]