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Feb 7, 2009 04:55 PM

Best Chinese Restaurants

It's been several years since anyone posted to a "Best Chinese Restaurants" topic here, and quite a few notable restaurants have opened during that period. So that, combined with having lunch at Double Li today, made me realize that maybe it's time to start a new Best Chinese topic. Here's what I've got; feel free to add to it, with recommendations for great Chinese food in the city and suburbs!

Lao Sze Chuan
2172 S. Archer Avenue
Chicago IL 60616

Lao Sze Chuan is perhaps the best-known Szechuan restaurant in the Chicago area. It's located on the end of a long building called Chinatown Mall, just a short walk west of the Cermak-Chinatown stop on the CTA Red Line. It's open for lunch and dinner, seven days a week. The décor is rather drab. The menu, which you can view on their website, is HUGE. When you are seated, they bring a complimentary, very hot (spicy hot) cold slaw. I've found that the wait staff is not overly helpful in providing suggestions and guidance regarding the menu selections, but as it turns out, I've always been quite happy with how my own selections turned out (the sole exception being when someone else was choosing a large banquet meal and chose ~15 dishes which were all unrelentingly hot and not particularly tasty either). My two favorite dishes are Tony's Chicken with Three Chilis, which is rather hot (although not as hot as the slaw), and shrimp in mayonnaise sauce, which is a mild (not hot) dish.

Double Li
228 W. Cermak Road
Chicago IL 60616
Serious Eats review:
Chicago Reader review:

Today was my first visit to Double Li and I liked it a lot. I hesitate to categorize it as necessarily better or worse than Lao Sze Chuan; I think they are both worth trying, and I plan on returning to both in the future.

Double Li is a storefront on the north side of Cermak (22nd Street), about half a block from Lao Sze Chuan and also just a short walk west of the Cermak-Chinatown stop on the Red Line. It's open for lunch and dinner, seven days a week. The first thing I noticed is that the décor is much brighter and more classy than Lao Sze Chuan; the walls are painted in bright shades of yellow and purple, and tasteful modern paintings hang on them, and the seating is more comfortable as well. Their menu is also huge; it is comparable in size to the Lao Sze Chuan menu, and far, far larger than the rather short version shown on Menupages, so don't use that as a guide. No slaw. Ben Li himself came over to take our order, and was extremely helpful in guiding our menu selections. His recommendation for a starter was the Szechuan dumplings, and these were really excellent. Compared with the more conventional pan-fried pot stickers you find here and elsewhere, these were more like wet won tons, served IN liquid similar to the sauce served on the side with pot stickers, i.e. with some hot oil in it and just the right touch of ginger taste to the dish. Yum!

We then had three entrees. Oddly, none of them had any liquid sauce to the dish, so there wasn't any for the rice on our plate to soak up. The first dish was Crunchy Garlic Shrimp. These consisted of 11 nice-sized shrimp, lightly fried, and served over noodles that had been cooked with garlic, green pepper, and onion. Very nice indeed. This was the mildest dish of our three entrees, and though it was marked with zero chili peppers on the menu - rather than one to three peppers denoting how hot the dish is - it still had a slight amount of spice to it. The second dish was the Black Pepper Garlic Beef Tenderloin which had been mentioned in one of the reviews, and this was nice also. It was just slightly sweet, and quite tender. It was fairly spicy and personally I would have given it two peppers rather than the one shown next to it on the menu. The third of our three entrees was the Dry Chili Chicken. This consisted of chicken chopped to "popcorn" size and deep-fried with dry red chili peppers. A LOT of peppers. In fact, this dish could have been called dry red chili peppers with some chicken thrown in. I looked at the plate and estimated that there were close to one hundred dry red chili peppers on the plate, averaging 1.5 inches long. That's a lot of peppers! And as you might expect, this dish was very, very hot indeed. Not too hot to eat, for anyone who likes hot food (and I do), but about as hot as the slaw at Lao Sze Chuan, i.e. pretty darn hot. Actually, though, I think I like the three-chili chicken at Lao Sze Chuan better, because it's more flavorful, more tender, and more moist. All in all, we loved the dumplings, liked the shrimp and noodles a lot, liked the beef, and the chicken was just okay. On a return visit, we would definitely order the dumplings again, but would try to avoid ordering three entrees that all involved deep-frying in the preparation, which was an unintentional mistake on our part this time around.

Shanghai Terrace
Peninsula Hotel
108 East Superior Street
Chicago IL 60611

We ate at Shanghai Terrace last year. Shanghai Terrace is located in the Peninsula Hotel, one of the top luxury hotels in the city. It's open for dinner seven days a week, but is currently not open for lunch, although they plan to serve lunch again starting in April. It's unlike any other Chinese restaurant in the Chicago area in that it's an upscale, luxurious restaurant, and it's priced to match. The food, which is predominantly Cantonese although it has quite a variety of influences from other Chinese regions and Asian countries, is consistently excellent, in taste as well as presentation. The level of service is what you expect in a luxury hotel, rather than what you expect in an ethnic restaurant; many people are at your beck and call. Typical attire is "business casual". Because of the pricing, this is more suitable for a special occasion; at most Chinese restaurants, you might spend $10-30 per person including tax/tip, whereas at Shanghai Terrace, with wine and tax/tip, we spent somewhere in the $100 neighborhood per person. That price level is consistent with our contemporary American "casual fine dining" restaurants like Aigre Doux, Blackbird, or North Pond, and so is the nature of the dining experience. But if you consider the prospect of paying that much for Chinese food to be shocking, then perhaps you might not want to go there. I enjoyed it, and I'm glad I tried it.

So those are the best Chinese restaurants I've eaten at in the Chicago area in recent years. I've tried some others in other parts of the city and suburbs, but haven't found any others that I've enjoyed consistently enough to recommend them here.

Anyone who would like to add recommendations for these or other Chinese restaurants, please feel free!

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  1. "Little" Three Happiness for excellent Cantonese (do not, under any circumstances, confuse this with the larger restaurant also called Three Happiness located right across the street).

    Shui Wah for dim sum (non-cart version).

    "Little" Three Happiness
    209 W Cermak Rd
    (312) 842-1964

    Shui Wah
    2162 S Archer Ave
    (312) 225-8811

    1. Not actually in the city, but in the suburbs (Schaumburg, I believe) is Yu's Mandarin. It used to be a really adorable little hole in the wall, but has since become popular and moved to a larger location, where it lost the wonderful, personal service.

      You'll have to make a reservation because the wait is ungodly and their service has definitely dwindled since their expansion, BUT...

      It is hands down the best Chinese food I have ever had. And I'm a Chinese food fiend ;) It's worth the wait.

      1 Reply
      1. re: cowgirlthunder

        Your review surprises me, because I go to Yu's probably 1-2 times a year (I don't live very close), but there is never a serious wait. The place is so big, and the food comes out so fast, that I never have had to wait more than 5-10 minutes for a table. The food is still excellent, though.

      2. i'm a sucker for manchurian food, so naturally my favorite joints are "ed's potsticker" and "lao beijing." both restaurants serve general "northern" fairs, but, for those who can tell, you can order an entire meal of manchurian dishes. yum! also, all the wait staffs at lao beijing are from manchuria (ex. shenyang). if you order all manchurian food, they'd probably come chat with you a bit!

        there's also this relatively new place called "chi cafe." it's owned by the same people at "ken kee." the food is better than ken kee, though still not great, and it's more clean and contemporary with an easy-to-read menu. great for late-night / after-bar snacking.

        for those of you who like taiwanese tapas, "international plaza" (formerly known as "ding hao") is the place to go. obviously it's not that great (lack of competition), but it's good enough to cure nostalgia or craving.

        International Plaza
        665 Pasquinelli Drive
        Westmont, IL, 60559

        1. Right now I think that Sun Wah BBQ House on Arglye is serving some of the best Chinese food in Chicago; most noteably, their Beijing duck, Shanghai pig, seafood and noodle dishes. I have always had a fondness for Moon Palace and their quite tasty xiao long bao, fish with peapod tops and Shanghai rice cake with pork and mustard greens. Lastly, I very much enjoy Triple Crown Seafood especially after 10 PM for the small plate menu. Some faves are the clams in black bean sauce, deep fried quail, lotus root w/ pork belly and black pepper short ribs.

          I cannot for the life of me understand why so many people get excited with Lao Sze Chuan. I have tried the place a handful of times and found the food to be one note at best with and inedible at worst. Nearly everything I've tried was bathed in a thick red chili "grease" and coated in sugar. The service is nothing special and often can be quite brusque . The last time is was there was for a birthday banquet upstairs and carpeting was covered with fortune cookie wrappers, errant bits of rice and much other food related detritus -- the place is dirty!

          2 Replies
          1. re: Vinny Barbaresco

            I, for one, happen to LOVE that "red chili grease." Haven't come across much of the sugary stuff. For an inexpensive, non pretentious, meal of spicy chinese fare, I really like LSC.

            1. re: gordeaux

              Yeah, the "red chili grease" is not an unusual style of szechuan cooking. My friend from Beijing took me to a restaurant in Chinatown and we ordered a special meal (I don't think it was on the menu). It was, essentially, a bowl of tofu, noodles, and fish swimming in chili oil. I had something very similar at LSC, but it had pork in it. Neither were sweet, btw.

              Usually when I'm at LSC I get the spicy fish fillet, but I've had hot pot and more American-style Chinese food there, too. Not all of it is prepared the same way. Lao Beijing has an even bigger menu with lots more variety.

          2. My favorites:

            Chinese/Fusion - Friendship, 2830 N. Milwaukee. Everything I have had there is excellent. A lot of mainstay dishes that are done with just a slight twist (say, a Sweet & Sour sauce that uses passion fruit, or a Honey Walnut Shrimp recipe that uses jalapenos).

            More traditional - Little Three Happiness in Chinatown. Always delicious.

            Suburban - Yu's Mandarin, absolutely.

            1 Reply
            1. re: bourj

              I'm partial to a small, almost "hole in the wall" store front on Halstead near 33rd simply called "Happiness".