You may have seen the news from Kevin Pang in the Tribune that Tony Hu (Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Hunan, etc.) was opening a new restaurant called Lao Yunnan, in the Chinatown Square Mall where most of his restaurants are now. This is good news, but it is also worth noting that the restaurant Lao Yunnan is replacing was no generic chop suey joint. It already was a rare Yunnanese restaurant in the U.S., which we admired a great deal, Spring World. It was also the first of two restaurants which, like Tony Hu’s empire, represented a serious attempt by a restaurant owner to extend the diversity of Chinese cuisine in Chicago. But so far as we’ve been able to determine (with due caveats about trying to gather facts across language barriers and so on), this nascent chain ran into a sad obstacle: owner James An’s wife, whose name we have not been able to determine, reportedly died of cancer earlier this spring. Now the newer of the two restaurants, Tao Ran Ju, is closed, and Spring World has already been taken over by Tony Hu and is being operated by him under, for now, its old name and menu (which seems to be his typical practice for taking over an existing business).
Yunnanese cuisine is underrepresented in America, apparently because it’s relatively similar to the food of neighboring Szechuan province, and even if you make Yunnanese food, it’s easier to draw non-Chinese customers with “Szechuan.” (See also: Guatemalan food, “Mexican restaurant.”) But Spring World was upfront about calling out Yunnanese specials and offering, more or less uniquely, a Chinese-style buffet of room-temperature, mostly spicy and scary-to-westerners items like spicy tripe or sliced pig ear. It was not necessarily a spread of easy things to like, but it was undoubtedly eye-opening.
A couple of years ago An opened a second restaurant, Tao Ran Ju, which specialized in xiao long bao, soup dumplings— a much-admired Chinese specialty little found here (at least in versions meeting the standards of xiao long bao-heads). But as we reported recently, Tao Ran Ju closed earlier this year, and an under the radar sale of Spring World to Tony Hu was made. Though the name hasn’t changed yet and the old menus are still in place, we were told that Hu is already managing Spring World and has brought some new staff in. As pleased as we are to see Tony Hu expanding into another province and keeping the Yunnan representation alive in the space, we are sorry to see the end of both Spring World and, evidently, James An’s ambitions to showcase his home cuisine in Chicago.
Lao Yunnan is, in fact, only one of two restaurants Hu has recently announced plans to open, though clearly the more interesting one to those interested in authentic Chinese cuisine. According to Eater the other, at some future date, will be a glitzier downtown spot at 18 W. Hubbard which, by the report in Eater, will offer samples of each of Hu’s regional cuisines and the possible participation of nightlife impresario Marc Bortz (insert clubs we admit we never heard of here). Maybe it will bring authentic Chinatown funk to River North, which would be a great thing. If not, the Red Line will take you to the funk and to Tony Hu’s real tour of regional cuisines in Chinatown, just as it does now.