Chicago’s Chinese Restaurant Problem

I was cleaning out some files the other day, and came across a menu from the old Dragon Inn, in Glenwood, Illinois – the first Mandarin, or Northern, Chinese restaurant in the mid-west. It nearly brought tears to my eyes, because that level of Chinese cooking simply doesn’t exist in this town any more.

The Dragon Inn was a revelation back in the early ’70’s – the first potstickers (called on the menu by their Mandarin name, “kwoh te”), the first Hot and Sour Soup, the first Peking Duck. My husband and I have often wondered if the food was really that good, or was it simply that it was excitingly different? Looking at this menu makes me realize that it must have been both. Today there simply is no place like it: a “white tablecloth” restaurant with cooking that was authentic, refined, and consistantly excellent. Chicago ‘foodies’ have their favorites, like Lao Sze Chuan, Little Three Happiness, and Ed’s Potsticker House, but for me, they all fall short. Lao Sze Chuan has some very good dishes on it’s huge menu, but there are plenty of duds, as well. The atmosphere is frenetic and the service is hit or miss. Ed’s was a disappointment – the vaunted cigar-shaped potstickers greasy and bland. As for Little Three Happiness, I ate there yesterday witha friend, and would not go back. The dim sum appetizers we ordered were overcooked (the chicken curry puffs looked – and tasted – as if they’d been fried in oil that was too cold to start. They were a dark brown, sodden with oil – totally unappetising), and the “Szecuan Diced Chicken” contained more celery than chicken – and what chicken there was had a strange “doggy” under-taste. It was billed on the menu as “spicy,” but it was not. It was slathered in an inedible brown sauce – we couldn’t eat it. Our other entree was beef in Black Pepper, and it was edible, but nothing great. Of course, Little Three Happiness is basically a Cantonese restaurant, and you might say we got what we deserved for trying to order “spicy” or “Szechuan” dishes there. But this seems to be what has happened in Chicago – the Cantonese places have pre-empted the “Mandarin” dishes, and ruined them. My search for a place that does an authentic Kung Pao chicken is a case in point. The dish is on every Chinese menu, but always in the same bastardized version – a jumble of chicken and every vegetable they had in the kitchen (including a few charred chilies as an afterthought), in a oleaginous brown sauce, with a few peanuts thrown on top. I have not had an authentic version in this city in decades.

 The Dragon inn menu – look at those 70’s prices!

So that’s my gripe: no authentic Northern cooking, no nicely upscale “white-tablecloth” Chinese place (Szechuan Hose on Michigan Avenue comes closest, but the food is indifferent), and a complete lack of innovative menu planning (everywhere the same tired dishes in their bowlderized forms – kung pao this and that, mu shu this and that, “Szechuan” this and that). Some of the most disappointing places are P. F. Chang’s and Ben Pao, which seemed at first to be what I was looking for, until everything I ordered turned out to be sweet. Then there are the “contemprary” places, like Red Light, which is not really a Chinese restaurant – good in it’s way, but not the real thing.

I know it could be better – I have the cookbooks to prove it. I’ve eaten in Hong Kong! And I have that old Dragon Inn menu, with all its forgotten dishes.

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