-Grubbing in Chicago
Searching for Dry Chili Fish Filet
Welcome back! We’re kicking off the home stretch of the 2023 season with one of my traditional fried fish posts in honor of the Lenten season. Even as someone that eats everywhere I have my favorite places I return too often. One of them was a spot called New China Station on North avenue in Humboldt Park that suddenly closed last year. They had a Sichuan focused menu that included a dish called “Dry Chili Fish Filet” which I ordered out all the time. If you’ve ever had the dry chili chicken at Lao Sze Chuan, the Chinatown mainstay ran by mega restaurateur Tony Hu, dry chili fish is the same except with wok fried fish instead of chicken. Both are pretty common dishes at Chicago’s Sichuan spots. I first came across dry chili fish at the now defunct Lao Hunan in Chinatown. The dish was a board favorite at LTHforum. A 2014 article from the Tribune includes an interview with Tony Hu who also owned Lao Hunan. Kate Bernot wrote - “The dish begins with sole fillet, which is dredged in what Hu calls "super cornstarch," egg white and a probably unhealthy dose of salt. The coating perfectly adheres to the meat, which isn't always the case with fried fish. (Just try some sub-par fish 'n' chips to see the reverse.) Under another chef's hand, the sodium content of this dish could verge on inedible. But Hu counters the salt with green onions and a chili sauce that includes ginger, garlic and Chinese five spice, lending a heat that Hu puts at "a six or seven" out of ten on the spice scale.”
After Lao Hunan closed I kind of forgot about dry chili fish filet until New China Station opened nearby sometime around 2017. A tip on twitter from the always reliable @kennethaz led me to NCS which at the time of it’s opening was owned by a chef who cooked at some of Tony Hu’s Lao Sze Chuan outlets around Chicagoland (like the one in Skokie). I eventually tried dry chili fish filet from New China Station and became instantly hooked in the same way I was when I first had it at Lao Hunan. It was the dish I ate more than any other in town and it was pretty much always on point.
Unfortunately New China Station closed last year and I was forced to find a replacement. I’m going to share my findings in this post. One note before we get started. Around the time that NCS closed a spot called Szechuan Corner opened in a strip-mall on Ashland in Lakeview. My first thought upon learning of its opening was could this new spot be ran by the people from NCS. So I ordered their dry chili fish filet (takeout only) one cold and rainy night and forgot to take a pic of it when I got home and while it was good it wasn’t up to par with the offering at New China Station which was always made with smaller chunks of fish that were nice and crisp on the outside but extra moist from within. It included some decent heat but I wouldn’t describe the dish as extra hot. Just nice and spicy. The version served at Szechuan Corner was made with flatter pieces of fish so it wasn't as moist plus they weren’t all that crisp and it tasted a bit different than the fish at New China Station. But I’m determined to find a suitable replacement and this is what else I’ve found thus far -
Hunan Cuisine (Chinatown)
There was an obvious spot to start this search at and that was at Hunan Cuisine. It’s part of the Richland Center complex in Chinatown and is owned by none other than Tony Hu (the guy who owned the long gone Lao Hunan which is where this dish first appeared in Chicago). As the name of place suggests the food here features dishes from the Hunan province and the menu lists dry chili fish filet under it’s seafood selections. I’m pretty sure dry chili fish filet is a Sichuan dish but what might make the version served here Hunan style is the spice level. The food in Hunan is said to be even spicier than that in the Sichuan province and what I was served was easily the hottest version of this dish I’ve had and probably the spiciest dish I’ve ate of late. The fish and all that comes with it (dry chilis, green onion, garlic, ginger) is listed as sole. So this was just like the original version served at Lao Hunan except it was extremely spicy and thus a little hard to enjoy. I also thought the fish could’ve been a tad crisper but overall I would get this again I’d just make sure to ask for it mild which will likely still result in a spicy product just hopefully not the type of spicy that dominates the entire flavor profile.
Chef Xiong (Chinatown)
(Pic from Fooditor)
This Chinatown spot boasts a pic of its chef with Anthony Bourdain (plus Steph Izzard) on its windows. I went here recently with a buddy from St. Louis who knows about the craving powers of a good dry chili fish filet as the dish has made its way down I-55 to a place called Chili Spot. We both agreed the version served at Chef Xiong was good but it wasn’t quite what we were looking for. Chef Xiong serves their version with larger long chunks of cod which wasn’t all that crisp. It does come with a bunch of fried green beans that absorb some really nice spice and taste great thrown atop some steamed white rice but the fish itself was way too large and much too soft. Note: the owners of Chef Xiong also run Peppercorns Kitchen in Evanston which I featured HERE in 2020.
This Chinese restaurant on Taylor street has a wide menu selection that I bet appeals to the local college kids at UIC. You can get General Tao’s chicken or pork intestine with preserved vegetables and so on. They don’t seem to have a single identity but there is a bunch of Sichuan offerings including dry chili fish filets. I liked the size of the fish itself but felt like the fish had a different taste than used to. There is no specific fish I expect and I’m pretty sure New China Station just used tilapia but whatever type of fish ML Kitchen used it didn’t quite feel right. But remember I’m trying to find one similar to New China Station so this wasn’t bad it’s just wasn’t the replacement I was hoping it to be.
Jade Court is a Cantonese restaurant that has called a few Chicago neighborhoods it’s home over the years. The latest place they’ve popped up is in Hyde Park which needed a nice Chinese restaurant like this. You can find all the Cantonese classics on the menu here including dim sum but then they also have a Sichuan section to choose from. I tried the dry chili fish filet which got praise from others online and I liked it just fine but again it wasn’t the replacement I was hoping it could be. One thing I did like about this version of the dish was the numbing factor of the mala peppercorns was high. I also didn’t mind the stir fried bell peppers that were included but the fish just wasn't that crisp.
Like our first stop our final stop also has a connection to Tony Hu, the guy who introduced Chicago to dry chili fish. Chengdu Impression is a popular spot on Halsted in Lincoln Park. It’s owned by Tony Hu’s nephew, Ryan Hu. Ryan learned the ropes under Tony before venturing off on his own (Chengdu Impression now has three city locations). I’d been to Chengdu Impression a few times but never tried the dry chili fish filet until recently. Well this just might be the one. No it’s not the exact same as that New China Station but it might the one I replace it with. The fish is crisp and the spice is right - hot but not dominant. I also liked how most of the fish was cut into smaller pieces which helps make it crisper than some of the others on this list. I have a replacement for now ... but I'm still holding out hope that New China Station can make a triumphant return. Thanks for tagging along!
See ya next time @chibbqking