Regional food specialties
- Chicago's Old School American-Chinese Dining Scene
Soon it will be Christmas Day. For me that's always meant a similar schedule. Wake up, open presents, go to the Southside to hang with my moms side of the family before leaving to head back North to my aunt and uncle's place and hang with my dads side of the family. However last year we switched it up and went out for Chinese. My aunt and uncle took us all to Orange Garden where many people were eating as if just another day. Not all celebrate Christmas, people of Jewish faith for one. The countries American-Chinese restaurants are an ideal place for dinner on December 25th. This is a more recent tradition for the restaurants which started to pop up when the Chinese came to the States during the Gold Rush. They brought recipes with them and because of the fact many of the workers came from the city formerly known as Canton these recipes were made paired with readily available ingredients. With it American-Chinese food was born. These days your hard pressed to pass a town without a Chinese restaurant, they're as prevalent as Dunkin Donuts and BP.
a peak inside a few of Chicago's remaining old school American-Chinese restaurants
In the early 20th century, eating out in a Chinese restaurant in Chicago was considered an experience. Places like the Mandarin Inn, Joy Yen Lo and Hoi Sai Gai were white-tablecloth palaces that attracted some of the city's elite as well as tourists alike. Today these places are dying fast as the youth of those that owned them look to take different career paths as well as stuff like moving to the suburbs to start a family. Some of the spots have moved to the suburbs with the family but many have closed their doors for good. Today we take a look at some of the old school spots that remain.
An original participant in The Taste of Chicago_____________________________________________________________________
Located on Irving Park in North Center
There's a few different dates for exactly when Orange Garden opened up and one of them is 1926. The original owner needed a way to sell Chinese food to locals and designed the place to look like a diner of its time. Since then aside from a change in ownership and also the prices on the menu, not much here has changed. The outside remains one of the great architectural restaurant designs from another time and the food inside is classic American-Chinese. They have some of the best sesame chicken, make a mean egg roll and also do pork lo mein and Cantonese shrimp really well. If it's fried they tend to make it to the specifications most Americans would approve.
Sesame Chicken Lunch Plate
1942 W Irving Park Rd
Chicago, IL 60613
Lee's Chop Suey
On Diversey in Logan Square
The inside of Lee's has the looks and feel of your grandmothers place where nothing has been updated since 1986. As far as I'm concerned this is the way it should be when eating out in an American-Chinese restaurant. According to one account I found online they've been open since 1968. Lee's is a good place to kill your sweet and sour chicken (good) craving with one of their well priced lunch specials served with an egg roll (just ok) and chicken fried rice (kind of dry).
Sweet and Sour Chicken Lunch Special
Lee's Chop Suey
2415 West Diversey Avenue
Chicago, IL 60647
On Damen in Lincoln Square
Shanghai Inn was founded in 1960. It used to be at 1945 W. Lawrence Ave before moving to the present location on Damen Ave in 1995. Which is odd because the inside feels like it hasn't changed since the 70's. Shanghai Inn is run by a lovely lady named Lisa who seems to know everyone that stops thru. That's probably because they get alot of regulars up in there.
a peak inside
I'd always wanted to see what up here but never did until past summer when I decided to put the finishing touches on this report. It's the Gum lo Beef that I always wanted to try, from the description it sounds like the popular Canadian-Chinese eat of ginger beef. Described as "Lightly breaded beef diced with cashew nuts with a touch of sweet ginger sauce." It hits the spot in a way that many Ameri-Chinese dishes do. Sometimes you just want to eat heavy plates of gloppy goodness.
Gum Lo Beef
4723 North Damen Avenue
Chicago, IL 60625
Tony's Chinese & American
Grand Avenue in Belmont-Central neighborhood
While riding West on Grand one day the inclusion of American in the name of this place caught my eye. Then when I spied they make their own egg rolls I rolled on into this old school spot with a very modern interior. I guess they redecorated few years ago but they've been there since the early 80's. On the wall to your right as you enter there's a bunch of pictures of the food, which are actually enticing well shot photographs. Along with those are some old nostalgic pictures from one of the spots the owner Tony used to cook at in Chinatown.
The old Chi'Am Restaurant
I'm glad I found this place because they make some solid stuff, I've been back a couple times since first trying them, but I haven't tried the egg roll since the first time in. It was awful, the interior layer was rubbery. Had I not tried their Tiki chicken plate which got me nostalgic for this place from college I wouldn't of ever gone back. But I'm glad I did, their fried rice rocks and everything else I've tried like the mayala chow fun has been better than average. It's a well run machine.
Chicken Tiki over Fried Rice (Available all day off the lunch section)
Tony's Chinese & American Restaurant
6347 W Grand Ave
Chicago, IL 60639
Young's Chinese Restaurant
a peak inside
Classic old school stop in the middle of an area with many options for this style. Young's has been serving the Northshore for over a half decade. I decided I had to stop in and try something based on the sign outside, it's definitely a classic. Inside is a time warp as well and the Young's Lunch plate Special will get you a soup, egg roll, spare rib, Cantonese shrimp, crispy wonton and a scoop of pork fried rice for $6. Nothing special, egg roll included. While it was well sized and extra crispy with hints of peanut butter the rest of the filling was average at best, though the house hot mustard was fire and I'll always enjoy a Cantonese fried shrimp in that guilty pleasure sort of way.
Young's Lunch Plate Special
Young's Chinese Restaurant
1744 Waukegan Rd
Glenview, IL 60025
Green Jade Chinese Restaurant
I've only tried War Sue Gai at a couple spots in Detroit. It's available all over that region and is also commonly found around Columbus, Ohio. I've had a couple itches for it over the last year but only found two places with it listed on the menu. Weird since we're close enough to both city's and I'm sure there's folks in the restaurant business who have a connection to either or of the towns. I was in and out of Elgin a while back so I finally had the chance to give the Almond Boneless Chicken at Green Jade a try. This place screams American-Chinese from the dimly lit dining room to the 1970's booths to the customers and buffet table many of them were eating from. The dish was damn good if you like to indulge in the guilty pleasure that is regionalized Americanized Chinese food. Nicely fried breast with the stir fried veggies and gravy underneath to help keep the crispiness intact. I'll be back.
Almond Boneless Chicken
Green Jade Restaurant
10 Tyler Creek Plaza
Elgin, IL 60123
Hong Kong Chop Suey
I was tipped off to this place by a buddy of mine over at LTHforum. He was throwing praise upon it after a trip he took up there on a tip from his brother. My chance to try them came a couple weeks later when I was headed out that way. As he rec'd the egg rolls were phenomenal. They would of ranked high on the upcoming list had I not chose to feature this locals favorite on its own. Equally as good was their wonton soup which for $2.75 is a steal. Loaded with strips of white meat chicken, bbq pork, mushrooms, water chestnuts, green onion slices and delicate wontons this was a stellar bowl.
Top Notch Egg Rolls and Very Good Wonton Soup
Equally as valuable as far as bang for your buck meals are the lunch specials. I decided to go with a namesake plate of chop suey and opted for the pork. Maybe the most iconic American-Chinese dish this was a common meal for the railroad workers who went to California from China. Take whatever is left, chop it down, season and sautee with some brown gravy on top. This is how they ate.
Pork Chop Suey Lunch Special with fried rice
Hong Kong Chop Suey
316 N Lake St
Mundelein, IL 60060
Main Street in McHenry, IL
Plum Garden is the oldest restaurant in McHenry dating back to 1965. I could go into detail about the history of this near perfect example of an old school American-Chinese restaurant or I could link to a video on it from YouTube. I'll choose the latter. Considering it's still going strong in 2014 I'd say it's safe to assume the dream has been achieved. I popped in on a crisp cool Fall day and was greeted by Perry who was playing the gaming machines off to the side. They do the heavy loaded luau style cocktails and some local craft beers at the bar which has a slick old Vegas type of vibe.
Chef/Owner Perry has developed a few of the recipes you'll see on the menu though most of them are the same ones you'll find at every other small town Chinese restaurant. I'd heard the fried rice was good and can always appreciate a well made order of that so I tried their fiesta version with all the meats and some vegetables included in it.
Fiesta Fried Rice (chicken, steak, shrimp, bbq pork)
Most of this plate was ate the next day and while it was pretty good I don't like when the meats are large chunks, preferring it to be diced which is what the bbq pork was. Should there be a next time I'd just get some pork fried rice. Reason for the visit was to try their famous "Hong Kong Chicken" which the menu boasts has been served over a million times. Chef Perry came up with the recipe in 1972 and today it's one of the most popular plates of food in McHenry.
Hong Kong Chicken Lunch Plate
Large breasts of white meat chicken are hand-dipped resulting in a crispy house batter. The breasts are then sliced and topped with Hong Kong sauce and served over a crispy bed of bok choy, peapods, and water chestnuts. It's the epitome of American-Chinese food and to me this isn't a bad thing. Not all that different than War Sue Gai aka Almond Boneless Chicken. It's basically that minus the almonds and when the taste for some comfort food comes kicking I could understand why someone from around this way would head over to Plum Garden. They were also voted the best egg rolls in McHenry County and one comes with each lunch plate but they must fry them beforehand because the rolls I got were limp and room temp. I don't think it would of made much of a difference had they been fresh, while they are handmade the ground meat and vegetable mixture inside is lacking any peanut butter flavor and the house hot mustard was 1920's orphanage tame. All in all, a cool spot if you're in the area and from time to time like to indulge in the joys of Gold Rush Chinese Cuisine.
Inside of the Egg Roll
3917 Main St
McHenry, IL 60050
While passing thru Central Illinois recently I finally got to try the oldest restaurant in town. The Grand Cafe has been around since 1921 when its founding father moved from Chicago's Chinatown down to Bloomington. Today the place is operated by a fourth generation family member.
a peak inside
I've always wanted to stop in if for anything to get a peak inside and it's what you'd expect from the oldest restaurant in the area. Cool place, the locals were pouring in as they were just opening for dinner. I was originally just going to try some egg rolls but the Grand tray caught my eye and I was with my friend who presented eating power so I dropped the $10 on it. The egg rolls were the best thing off of it, though nothing special on this day. Either way, cool place for the nostalgia.
The Grand Cafe
615 North Main Street
Bloomington, IL 61701
Tang's China House
Sarnia, Ontario (Since 1969)
Bonus Stop! Oh, Canada. I guess now is as good a time as ever to talk some Canadian-Chinese without derailing the original topic too much. I love seeking out the regional American-Chinese treats like a St. Paul sandwich (STL), War Sue Gai (Detroit + Columbus), and Springfield (MO) style cashew chicken and of course a peanut butter laced egg roll amongst others. Anyway in Canada they have many of the same stuff made in the States plus their own signature dishes found regionally. It's said that even the most desolate towns that have no McDonalds, Pizza Pizza's etc have at least one Chinese restaurant. One day I'll try Calgary style ginger beef but a couple summers back I made it into a famous longtime spot in Canada on my way back into the states.
As we enter
Over the Years
Anyway I was there for sweet & sour chicken balls, yes I still laugh when I say that. Aside from the Calgary style fried ginger beef and a few other regional dishes the main points of Canadian-Chinese are very similar to American-Chinese, they just do things a little bit differently as far as presentation. The S&S Chicken balls here were no different than most American recipes though they were properly fried thus better than many renditions I've tried. Egg roll was loaded with peanut butter but I noticed that it was wrapped differently just like it was at another Canadian-Chinese takeout spot that I tried near Niagara Falls. A little google search reveals that most spots in Canada make them as seen below, that's about the only difference in egg rolls north of the border.
Sweet and Sour Chicken Balls Lunch Special with a Canadian Egg Roll
Tang's China House
165 Cromwell St
Sarnia, ON N7T 3X4, Canada
Chicago (land) Egg Roll Tour
Back in this blogs beginning days I went on a search for the best egg roll in the Chicagoland area. I found some good ones but never kept up, often forgetting about egg rolls anytime the thought of a quick snack came to mind. It wasn't until recently when a thread on LTHforum titled 'American-Cantonese Egg Rolls' popped up that the urge to find the best one suddenly came back.
What makes a great egg roll? That's often up for debate as the treat can vary by country, but when it comes to the patriotic American-Chinese egg rolls, there's a few things we know make for a good one. While we all have preferences I think most readers will agree with how I went about scoring each place. The wrapper needs to be near greaseless and crispy. The insides should ideally have crunchy cabbage, pork, shrimp and the secret ingredient of peanut butter giving it a smooth finish. I went ahead and scored them based on this criteria. With the filling being most important it scored on a scale of 1-10 while the exterior and condiments were each scored 1-5. If you offered the standard packet mustard, you scored 3, if you offered housemade you got a 4 or 5. Lets roll.
Read up more on American Egg Rolls in this wonderful piece by Monica Eng in the Tribune_____________________________________________________________________
Ing's Palace (Bridgeview)
I think I got an off batch from here, while there was a slight detection of peanut butter the egg rolls were over-fried while still managing to be limp. On top of that they gave me this generic packet of hot mustard that I've never seen (every other place uses the same brand) and it was hideous. All that said this is a really cool old school spot, the type that's fading fast.
8900 Harlem Avenue
Bridgeview, IL 60455
Golden Chef (Wheeling)
Another classic old school spot. The couple here used to own another popular Chinatown spot until moving out to da burbs. I guess consistency can play a key in the scoring of egg rolls because what I got were not what online reviews had described. While there was a nice amount of shrimp and some pork too with hints of peanut butter throughout, the filling was dry and the first and last bites were doughy. Packet mustard wasn't helping.
Golden Chef Restaurant
600 S Milwaukee Ave
Wheeling, IL 60090
Hong Min (Palos Hills)
The cabbage in these had crunch and there was plenty of bbq pork but something was lacking, at this point I'm used to most places serving packet mustard so I doubt it was that. Their Chow Fun is pretty damn good though I prefer it served dry (no gravy) so I'd advise to ask for that with the gravy on the side. If you you really want egg rolls these will do the trick though I wouldn't call them great.
Hong Min Restaurant
8048 West 111th Street
Palos Hills, IL 60465
Luo's Peking House (Oak Park)
This was the first place I tried since the OP was made. I was just in the mood for two and happened to be driving by so I stopped in to see what was up. Classic old school spot with the fish tank and furniture from the 70's. The menu states that these are made with peanut butter but unfortunately they're also made with bird instead of pig. I liked them but I really had a taste for them so as it turned out better rolls lay ahead.
Luo's Peking House
113 N Marion St
Oak Park, IL 60301
Had to stop when I saw the sign riding by. After pulling into the lot I checked what people were saying about it online. Lots of mentions for their egg rolls which was all I needed to read. These guys were medium sized with shrimp, pork and peanut butter. The cabbage and green onion mixture was finely chopped and the house hot mustard was thicker than the norm with extra kick to it.
Heng Wing Restaurant
121 Palatine Rd
Palatine, IL 60067
Wing Hoe (Chicago)
Never been here until they came up in a search though I've passed it countless times. I always wanted to do the old school Chinese restaurant 1-2 punch of Wing Hoe in Edgewater followed by taking Lakeshore drive to House of Bing in the South Shore neighborhood. Both have been there for a while. Wing Hoe has been tucked away amongst the towers for over 30 years and as you may of seen coming the specialty of the house is the egg roll. "Our house special! The crispy crust is made with peanut butter for a delicate nutty flavor. Egg rolls are then filled with shrimp and cabbage." Not bad but there's better.
5356 N Sheridan Rd
Chicago, IL 60640
Gen Hoe (Geneva)
If not feeling like modern Mexican then this old school stop is your spot for a roll in the pretty little town down on the river. I guess they have a few locations and as was evidence on the weekend I rolled in they can get packed, however unlike Bien Trucha they seem to have unlimited amounts of space. This one had both a crunchy interior and also exterior with lots of BBQ pork and a couple tiny shrimps inside. Just packet mustard so I cant call it great but it was pretty good.
Gen Hoe Restaurant
537 East State Street
Geneva, IL 60134
Palace Cantonese (Morton Grove)
I;d wanted to further the explore the menu at this classic looking spot but never got around to it before this report was due to go up. Next year, in the meantime they make a formidable egg roll. Not quite great these still hot the spot with a crunchy exterior though there were little shrimp, mostly pork. Tastes of peanut butter were traced inside.
Palace Cantonese Restaurant
9236 Waukegan Road
Morton Grove, IL 60053
House of Wah Sun (Chicago)
I've passed this place countless times and my time to try it came with this round-up. The friendly lady working takeout asked how I knew they used peanut butter when I asked if it was inside. With it were well ground pork, shrimp and cabbage and while the rolls were smaller in size than most they still hot the spot, extra props for house hot mustard.
House of Wah Sun
4319 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60618
Golden Sea Chop Suey (Aurora)
I decided to try this place tucked in on Ogden. From the feel of the inside they've been there for a while and their egg roll is probably part of the reason why. This was described as having pork, shrimp and peanut butter and each of them were present. Even with a high cabbage to meat ratio and hot mustard packets this was one of the better ones I've had to date. Must be the peanut butter.
Golden Sea Chop Suey
2908 Ogden Avenue
Aurora, IL 60504
Ma's Chinese (Elk Grove)
Another stripmall stop. Lots of mentions for their egg rolls over on Yelp which doesn't mean they're good but could at least be a clue. These were as big as they're cracked up to be. One of these was like two from the above spot. While I didn't taste nor find much peanut butter inside, the filling was loaded with shrimp and pork and managed to stay extra crunchy as opposed to mushy which can sometimes can be the case. These were pretty damn good, only thing missing was house hot mustard.
Ma's Oriental Express
1141 E Nerge Rd
Elk Grove Village, IL 60007
Moy Lee (Chicago)
Randomly drove by here and decided to try it before remembering that they were part of the original round-up. I pretty much agree with everything said as far as it having the most meat in an egg roll I've ever come across, BBQ pork too I believe as mine had the red colored meat with lots of chopped scallions inside. One was perfectly fried while the other was a tad soft and I didn't detect much peanut butter either yet thoroughly enjoyed them.
Moy Lee Chinese
5346 N Milwaukee Ave
Chicago, IL 60630
Mee Mah (Chicago)
Another rec off LTH. I always suspected this place of having something good due to their old school looks. Turns out that item to order is the egg roll. Like in so many other old school spots they have a long picture of all the generations of family members associated with the place. The egg roll was near flawless aside from the fact they gave packet hot mustard with to-go orders. So close.
4032 West Peterson Avenue
Chicago, IL 60646
Kow Kow (Lincolnwood)
This place has been a mainstay for people out this way for a few generations now. Originally this was the place that made me want to go on an egg roll crawl again. It happened when my buddie Rob posted his little round-up on LTH. These scored the highest on his card and the batter dipped shell is a big part of the reason why, inside is chopped cabbage paired with pork, shrimp and peanut butter.
Kow Kow Restaurant
6755 North Cicero Avenue
Lincolnwood, IL 60712
New Star (Elmwood Park)
If not for this story I would never know where to find this one because never would I have stopped hear with Johnnie's so near. In fact as soon as I got out the car to go in I got a whiff of the char grilled sausage in the air and almost walked towards there before fighting off the urge and continuing on with the quest. Turns out I might have a new 1-2 punch in my rotation. These were fantastic, creamy and perfectly balanced with house mustard that delivered sinus clearing heat. I'll be back.
New Star Restaurant
7444 W North Ave
Elmwood Park, IL 60707
See ya next time @chibbqking
A great list for those who are looking for Chinese food. I don’t think we have many famous Chinese San Francisco restaurants here. I will definitely try one of these restaurants when I am there in Illinois this summer.
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