New to the 'Scene'
One of the years most anticipated restaurant openings arrived this week. Chef's Special is the second project from the team behind Giant on Armitage. Chef's Special's location in an old Cuban restaurant on Western is right on the edge of Bucktown with Logan Square across the street. So even though it's in a weird space for restaurants it's going to attract lots of people from both 'hoods as well as everywhere else. The Giant team had been slowly rolling out Chef's Special menu items on the Giant menu which got lots of people excited. Not to mention the press (e.g Eater) has been all over it.
Newly Opened in Bucktown
Chef's Special is a vision from a team of about six Giant alums including it's head chef Jason Vincent. They wanted to make a spot dedicated to the Chinese food they ate growing up in Cleveland and elsewhere in the Midwest. You know the old school American-Chinese type restaurants that are becoming more and more rare. The spots with a faintly damp smell from the old furniture and maybe a fish tank sometimes still in use. The places where the previous generation became familiar with Chinese food, or should I say Chinese food cooked for American palates. When you first walk in to Chef's Special it feels more like a hip Caribbean themed bar somewhere in Miami or Montreal. They decided to stay away from what some might see as cultural appropriation. Plus there is no Chinese grandma to sit in the corner and peel peapods while the grand kids play in and out of a dining booth.
a peek inside
The center of the restaurant is a wrap around bar that they kept intact from the previous tenant. This is a cocktail bar after all and if you're curious about those I only tried the Chef's Special #1 and I liked it a whole lot. I'll return with booze being the main draw sometime soon. They will serve some food until 1am and they also have a nice happy hour where you can pair drinks with snacks. The menu is broken down into about 5 or 6 categories with maybe the same amount of dishes in each one. It's a nice sized menu for a spot like this. Then again there's plenty of repeats in the form of options like Kung Pao chicken, pork, and shrimp. Most of the American-Chinese classics are featured but I was disappointed they don't give a go to any of the many regional American-Chinese favorites. I'm still waiting for a hip spot like this to offer a St. Paul sandwich alongside an Old Fashioned etc.
Egg Rolls at Chef's Special
I'd had the egg rolls at Giant before as they tested a few of the recipes there. I remember liking them plus I wanted to make sure we tried the Holy Trinity of egg rolls, fried rice, and potstickers on our first visit. I'm not positive but I think they may have missed the chance to mimic Chicago's most regional American-Chinese dish in an egg roll with peanut butter. I'm not sure if they use it in their egg rolls or not but I didn't detect any. What I did catch was nice fully intact shrimps with tons of good flavor paired with pork and cabbage. For those that prefer their egg rolls be on the greasy side these were definitely there. They held about as much liquid as a well made soup dumpling. I was very glad to see they come two per order ($7). Make sure to make use of their homemade condiment jars including a nose clearing hot mustard. We got the shrimp fried rice but they offer all the standards. I liked this dish too. Decent wok hei and lots of the same delicious shrimp they used in the egg rolls. My one complaint would be to lose the peas but that's me personally. They're too white American.
Shrimp Fried Rice
What I liked about the menu was it's not trying to be anything other than American-Chinese food. It's very traditional in terms of those flavors they tried to mimic. If you're a false believer in MSG being a bad thing stay away bc they use it here and that's a good thing. There's none of that "clean" Chinese crap here. There's also no truffle oil on the potstickers or uni in the egg rolls. These are chef driven interpretations of the flavors pretty much everyone in the country knows. That's obvious in the potstickers which I wasn't expecting to be so traditional. The underside of the fried dumplings was really well browned. I would've preferred the sauce below them on the side but the classic pairing of pork and cabbage with what I read were housemade dumpling skins was on point. Impressive indeed.
Potstickers at Chef's Special Cocktail Bar
Sticking with the American-Chinese classics I got us an order of sweet and sour pork. Our waiter Anthony was terrific and he sold me on this when he assured me they do it nice and crispy and not too sweet. I really like the actually traditional Cantonese version of this dish but this was made in the American way with equally sized yellow bell peppers, onion, and pineapple. The pork was indeed crispy and not all that sweet but still it's going to lean sweet as that's what the Americans wanted when this dish became popular in the States. I was a little worried because it came out Panda Express fast after we ordered it but it was nice and hot and came with some of the most fragrant white rice I've had in a long time. I love rice but it's usually an after thought as far as it's quality. This was different. Super fluffy and none too clumpy. I also appreciated the fact they refilled the bowl.
Sweet and Sour Pork
The one part of the menu that will allow the kitchen team to showcase some of their own recipes is titled "Chef's Specials". There were a few dishes that caught my eye such as stir fried pork belly and clams or oxtail and scallop chow fun. There's also some Sichuan favorites scattered throughout the menu including these Dan Dan Noodles from the chefs specials. This dish is basically made a million ways in not just the States but China too. This version skewed more towards the traditional numbing Sichuan flavors than many others around town. It had very good heat due to lots of peppercorns combined with chewy noodles, ground pork, peanuts and chili oil. At $10 it was a pretty good deal too. I would be very happy with all the food if it came from an American-Chinese type spot. That said the bill will be bigger than your average Chinese takeout and the portions wont be quite as large. Still though all this plus two cocktails was $75 without tip. Plus we had leftover noodles. Thumbs up.
Dan Dan Noodles at Chef's Special Cocktail Bar
Chef's Special Cocktail Bar
2165 N Western Ave
Chicago, IL 60647