Tuesday, December 15, 2009

China Chef

-Eating like a local: Regional food specialties
The American-Chinese food of...America

So I decided China Chef's time was coming with the holiday season here. The Christmas holiday and Chinese restaurants have always shared a common bond together. We all remember in "A Christmas Story" when the dog eats the turkey and they spend thanksgiving dinner at the local Chinese restaurant. If your eating out on Christmas day then your going to Chinatown or your neighborhoods local Chinese joint, they're the only spots open. Its become an American tradition to do so. Although people of the Jewish faith don't celebrate Christmas they do have some traditions that go with it. What do Jewish people do on Christmas day? eat Chinese food. If your city is lucky enough to have a Chinatown then I guarantee that it will be the most hopping place this December 25th. No visit to Chinatown today though, which is the obvious place to visit for authentic Chinese regional cooking. Nope today we are going to the suburb of Morton Grove for Jewish American Suburban Chinese food. So its off to China Chef, a place that's been serving the mild tastebuds of the locals of the Morton Grove/Skokie area since 1977 with their mostly Cantonese-American-Chinese menu.

a locals favorite along Lincoln ave

At some point in time, my guess being when suburbs started forming, Chinese restaurants with an Americanized menu for the suburban eaters tastes started popping up across the country. Many spots around the city still have their vintage signs with "chop suey" all lit up and flashing. They also have the exact same menus today with all the regular dishes you would see on your local Chinese restaurants menu should you live somewhere in Suburbia. However most of these places can be very hit or miss and some are downright awful and others come and go in the same rental space on what seems like a monthly basis. The China Chef has managed to take everything loved by their neighbors and put that with excellent service and a dedication to great tasting food. Probably like that you grew up on if your from middle America somewhere. You can expect excellent takeout and delivery service along with all the regulars like the Chinese Zodiac papermat. The service is very friendly and during the weekends and Hanukkah season it can get very busy with all the parties dining in and orders being called in for pickup. Somehow they don't ever miss a beat.

2010 is the year of the tiger

The owners of China Chef call their restaurants food "homestyle Chinese" and have become a part of the community in their 32 years of China Chef's existence. What exactly is homestyle Chinese? What dishes make up this cuisine? well in this case its the aforementioned Jewish American Suburban Chinese and its dishes like chop suey, egg foo young, fried rice, egg rolls, crab rangoon, sweet & sour chicken and pork, General Tso's chicken, beef & broccoli, Mongolian beef etc...You know the stuff you grew up on or lived off of in college and high school. Well over the years this spiced down and in many cases dumbed down version of Chinese food became an offspring of Chinese food and in its own right, its own cuisine. Over these years I have been to many JASC food joints and I think China Chef takes the crown for best overall in this category. Its a family run joint where its so Americanized your servers will be named "Jeff, Joe and John" (which are obviously not their real ones) and of course they have the fish tanks and fortune cookies to go with your experience. But the food is really good especially if you know what to get. They deliver, do a wonderfully sufficient pick up business and have great lunch specials. There's not much not to like about this Suburban favorite.

What a to-go box from China Chef looks like (everything included)

China Chef is just another one of the gemmers I found over the years thru LTH. Since I never said I was a graduate from Princeton with a degree in writing let me quote poster Kudho who said it so perfectly...like I would like to say.

"This is a good example of how something positive can come out of a restaurant modifying it's original ethnic cuisine to suit local tastes. 'Jewish Chinese food" as served here along with other longstanding favorites, now exists as a cuisine unto itself (like Indian-Chinese), and should be evaluated accordingly." Kudho

I couldn't of said it any better. Its not just American-Chinese either, there's also Canadian-Chinese and if you remember my post on Negril, Caribbean-Chinese. Don't miss my upcoming monster post on where to eat Hawaiian (another Chinese fusion) in Chicago. I love it all, if its a Chinese fusion, I'm trying it and I'm loving it. Chinese cuisine made its way into other countries when immigrants moved from China across the world and cooked with local ingredients and to the tastebuds of Westerners. So as long as you don't go to a place like China Chef looking for dishes like Ma Po Dou Fu with ground pork or Xiao Long Bao, you should be just fine. Now onto the food!

The Elusive Egg Roll (Part 2)

China Chef is also the spot for the next stop in the hunt for the "best rolls in Chicago" an ongoing chibbqking series. If you don't remember the first stop was at Orange Garden, another American-Chinese favorite around town. The places featured in this series have a reputation for excellent homemade egg rolls and are always mentioned when the "best rolls in Chicago" are discussed. China Chef is one of these places mentioned and its a spot that has very good renditions of a few of the JASC appetizer favorites. Including the egg rolls.

China Chef's Egg Roll...

I thought the rolls at CC were better than average to good but not quite as good as Orange Garden. I felt the peanut butter addition that I like so much was lacking in China Chef's rolls and the big downer was the hot mustard. China Chef's hot mustard would have your grandma saying "that's not hot". The one problem I have with this place is even the dishes listed as hot are anything but spicy. You really have to let them know that you like it hot like they do if you have a high heat tolerance. The dude (stevez) who put me on this place over at LTH says they are his favorite and that he thinks "they put just a tiny hint of curry in with the peanut butter when they make the egg rolls. That's what puts them over the top for me." I cant disagree with the fact they are very good and I always order one to start.

...Good ingredients in the rolls, not enough heat in the hot mustard

As long as you know what to order when visiting, at pretty much any Chinese restaurant, you can have a great meal. Here are some of the China Chef's loyal patrons favorites eats. If there was ever a type of food to eat with groups of people, Chinese is it. Try and go here with a bunch of people and this way you can have it all.

Potsticker perfection at China Chef

^I have a distinct memory of when I was younger and we were at a Chinese restaurant before a Bulls game or something with my dad, uncles and grandpa and I wanted Pot Stickers. So my grandpa asked me what I was ordering and I said "two orders of potstickers" and he said "ya I know were ordering that for the table but what do you want for a main course" I said "potstickers" he thought I was crazy. My dad tried to make me order something else for the table but hey, I'm hard headed and I loved potstickers and I still do. The China Chef version is as good as I can remember. Crisp, light skin with good flavor inside made great with the vinegar sauce they serve with it.

Pork Fried Rice...as good of a preparation of it as I've had

^Too many places screw up fried rice which is pretty hard to do. Not at china chef where they fry up huge piles of pork fried rice with the perfect color, phenomenal flavor and crispy pieces of pork. I could eat fried rice 4-5 days a week if its cooked correctly and China Chef does it up just right. Again, one of my favorite variations of an American-Chinese favorite.

Sweet & Sour Pork lunch special...made with CC's famous sweet & sour sauce

^S&S chicken is a dish I rarely order when eating out American-Chinese. Half of the time its not fried (which is how I prefer it) and the other half of the time the sauce is not to my liking. Its not the flavor of S&S sauce I don't like but the gooiness of it. Usually its too sweet and has too much cornstarch. Not so at CC. I'll also usually get chicken if ordering this but thanks to a tip I always get pork here.

If I can quote Cathy2 from LTH she tipped off that..."China Chef's sweet and sour pork is the best version I have ever had. The pork has a very light coating almost tempura-like with a light fruity sauce not weighed down too heavily in cornstarch."

Guess what? I totally agree. This was my favorite pork version, Chicken Lavish still has the best chicken version I can remember.

JASC favorite: General Tso's chicken...done up right

^I think that of all the main entrees on the American-Chinese menu that General Tso's chicken is the most consistent. I usually find good versions of this dish that has no origins back to China or General Tso and was first mentioned on record in 1977 in the NY Times. Its pretty hard to screw up the deep frying of dark pieces of chicken, which is then tossed in a sweet and sour sauce with a bunch of common American-Chinese ingredients. I do wish CC's version was hotter but I already knew that they don't respect my heat level. Other than that it is great.

Kung Pao Chicken

^Now here is one of my favorite dishes in Chinese food. Unlike the rest of these we've seen, this dish actually has traces back to China. So I guess because of this, China Chef doesn't excel in this dish. I would have to say take a pass on the Kung Pao at CC but this is my personal preference. I didn't like the chicken at all, thought it was too stringy. Kung Pao chicken is one of my favorites because when good its full of flavor but the taste and heat was lacking at China Chef.

The House Specialty: Mongolian Beef

^I always have to have an order of the house special Mongolian beef when dining at China Chef. Like most American-Chinese dishes it has no traces to China and the name is misleading. It has nothing to do with Mongolia as far as ingredients and preparation. However they do a great version of this JASC classic. Grandma, Grandpa, the kids, me, you, everyone likes this dish.

On top of all these favorites China Chef also has a Filipino menu and from what I've heard from reading around, its not all that bad. You better believe that they will be open and packed on Christmas day this upcoming holiday. Listen to a story about the Chinese food-Christmas day connection aired on NPR by clicking HERE.

China Chef
5920 W. Lincoln Ave.
Morton Grove, IL

China Chef on Urbanspoon

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