If you hear a lot about a restaurant cooking a particular ethnic or cultural style of food in Chicago, it's usually because there's a savvy publicity operation behind it. When you hear a lot about Tony Hu's restaurants, it's out of sheer love from Chicago's food mediaoids. A few years ago he was the operator of a single restaurant admired by many as a contender for Chinatown's best, Lao Sze Chuan. As other restaurants' closings opened up space in Chinatown, however, he began expanding with new spots devoted to regions besides his native Szechuan— Lao Beijing, Lao Shanghai. With the fifth, Lao Hunan, he catapulted past far better funded and promoted openings to acclaim for one of the top new spots of the year and universal admiration for his dedication to authentically-presented cuisine. Okay, but with five restaurants serving a couple of hundred dishes each (we're not exaggerating), how do you know what to order? That's where a terrific piece from Serious Eats Chicago editor Nick Kindelsperger comes in.
Kindelsperger starts out with some good rules for getting the most out of any authentic ethnic restaurant— stick to regional items, ignore the Chinese-American stuff you know, take advice from the waitstaff (though they may steer you back toward the Chinese-American, so you have to know when to say no thanks). In the end he comes up with 14 dishes he particularly liked across the full range of Hu's restaurants— it's no surprise that "chicken crack" (Tony's Three Chili Chicken) at Lao Sze Chuan makes the list, but he calls out much less well known dishes such as the "dainty" shredded tofu with vegetable at Lao Shanghai, and the Three Kingdom Steamed Egg at Lao You Ju, which looks fancy and inventive enough to come from a much more upscale joint. The one that doesn't seem to make so much of an impression on him is Lao Beijing, which only has two dishes on the list (plus a third shared by most of them), neither of which looks worth a special trip. Still, the most interesting part is just that he tried all of them enough to be able to distinguish them clearly:
It was only after eating at all of them in close succession that I really started to understand what distinguished each restaurant. The numbing and hot combo at Lao Sze Chuan couldn't be more different than the subtle use of rice wine and sugar at Lao Shanghai. Even Lao Hunan, which had some madly spicy dishes, distinguished itself thanks to a reliance on funky pickled vegetables.
Which is the best tribute of all to how lucky we are to have Tony Hu hard at work, spinning off a new restaurant every year and doing something different with each time.
My 14 Favorite Dishes From Chicago's Chinatown (Tony Hu Edition) [Serious Eats Chicago]