Tuesday, April 17, 2012

More Than A Maothful

Last Saturday after an exhausting but successful day at C2E2, I took volunteer extraordinaire Maggie Roll out to dinner in nearby Chinatown to Lao Hunan, a Maostalgia themed restaurant in the heart of Chicago's small but robust Chinatown. We got there around 8 and were able to be seated within 10 minutes, despite the full tables and long wait for larger groups. Here's what we saw from the waiting counter:

When we were seated they promptly brought us a delicious, spicy Chinese style kim chee to tide us over as we looked over the awesome menu. As you can see, the servers all wore Party uniforms, including a satchel for tips and notes. The waitstaff was outstanding -- they hustled and were cheerful. I don't know if this was part of the schtick, or because they liked working with each other, or both, but they were a really great crew.

The food was no joke. We settled on Spicy Fish Filet with Tender Tofu; Famous Prawn In Hot Wok; and Mixed Vegetables Hunan Style. I wish I was in Chicago more often, because there was a reservation only dish called "The Mad General Zhao's Yellow Eel Hunan Style" that seems like one of those bucket list kinds of foods one should have. They also offered frog and turtle, which are two creatures I have no interest in eating, but that I was impressed to find on the menu.

But let's get down to the stuff we did eat. Here's the spread -- Spicy Fish Filet on the left, Mixed veg in the middle, Famous Prawns at the end:

And here's a close up of the fish filet. It looks like Satan's breakfast:

Overall, the food was excellent. The vegetables were mildly spiced and diverse. The fish filet was amazingly flavorful and delicate in a way that it dissolved in your mouth. The use of wasabi peas was novel, and also quite tasty. The only downside to this dish is that it used so much oil in the sauce that it coated your tongue in a way that made other liquids taste weird. So while the actual ingredients tasted amazing, the sauce they were in overwhelmed everything else, which was too bad. That didn't kill the meal, but I would refrain from this dish if I get to go back to this place.

What I would not refrain from is the Famous Prawn in Hot Wok. I usually regard adjectives in Chinese food menus as hyperbole or Engrish, but in this case, it was the only appropriate word to describe the Prawns. They were gently breaded with a salt & pepper tempura, and then rested on a sumptuous bed of peppers, onions, garlic and scallions. This dish was the winner. Here's how Maggie felt whenever she tasted a famous prawn:

The meal was capped off by chocolate fortune cookies -- the first time I'd ever seen such a thing. They smelled like the tin of Nestle's Qwik my mom bought us to make hot chocolate with when I was a kid and tasted pleasant. The cookie seemed to know why I was in town, telling me: "It is honorable to stand up for what is right, however unpopular it seems."

Lao Hunan is located at 2230 S. Wentworth Ave. in Chicago.

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