Photography: Anna Knott
You know how a friend says you need to start watching a TV show because it’s so good, but it’s already season 5 and you can’t muster the energy to catch up? That’s Tony Hu’s Chinatown-based empire for me. Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Beijing, Lao Shanghai, Lao Hunan, Lao Yunnan, Lao You Ju, Lao Ma La—the man has unleashed 11 Chinese restaurants since 1998 and covered so much territory that they’re starting to run together.
Hu foresaw this dilemma. Lao 18, the Chengdu native’s latest, breaks little ground foodwise—in fact, it may represent a step backward. Opening on a high-traffic stretch of Hubbard Street seems like the right move for a chef who desperately wants to bring regional Chinese food to the masses. But the strip is a boozy, cartoonish spectacle, a less-credentialed version of Randolph Street, and his serious 8,000-square-foot lair feels shoehorned in.
The dark interior straddles Chinatown traditional and River North sleek, sporting birdcage chandeliers, clubby music, and a curvy brass ceiling sculpture drifting overhead like a cloud. Instead of saddling patrons with a crippling number of choices, Lao 18 distills and celebrates Hu’s many tricks without dumbing things down too much. The self-congratulatory menu features all the classics, such as Tony’s Three-Chili Chicken, Tony’s Dry Chili Crab, Tony’s Crispy Pan-Fried Noodles, and Peking duck (“Tony’s Secret”), all while daring you to try the likes of Shanghai jellyfish or a soup of sour pickle and sole fillet.
Ironically, the straight-up offerings deliver the best pure flavors, such as admirable Peking-style dumplings, irregular-shaped gems filled with tender pork and napa cabbage in spicy chili oil sauce. Eight wrap-like scallion pancakes stand at attention around a bowl of plum sauce; their chewy texture, similar to Indian paratha, plays off the tender smoked pork belly they envelop. And when Lao 18 goes spicy, it doesn’t care what your baseline is. A mound of wonderful crisp shell-on prawns swims in a sea of fiery tien tsin dry red chili peppers—plus raw peppercorns, in case you weren’t getting enough heat.
Hu’s green-tea-smoked duck, a Sichuan staple that he’s been perfecting since he was a teenager, is already legendary at Lao Sze Chuan, and it’s just as addictive downtown: rich, crackling skin melts right into delectable chunks of meat rubbed with salt and cinnamon. If it gets a new audience here, everyone wins. The crispy pan-fried noodles are a harder sell—half crunchy, half gummy, all greasy—basically tasting like a $15 MSG bomb, full of sweaty beef, shrimp, chicken, and black mushrooms in a reservoir of oyster sauce.
When it comes to drinks, the whole operation mostly ditches the Chinese connection (apart from evocative cocktail names), opting for Bellinis, sakes, and abundant Japanese ingredients. And while desserts include one classic, a silky jasmine custard somewhere between a panna cotta and a flan in texture, they also consist of head-scratchers like the hulking, almost soufflé-like “Chinese” doughnut holes with bittersweet chocolate and vanilla sauces. Good, but when we ask the bubbly waitress what makes them Chinese, she mumbles something about how the dough is different. “And,” she adds, “they’re made by, you know, Chinese people.” Something tells me that answer wouldn’t fly on Archer Avenue.
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Whether Lao 18’s calculated splurge succeeds or fails, Tony Hu remains the undisputed king of Chinese food in Chicago. Juno, just past that endless stretch of bro bars in Lincoln Park, is an attempt to elevate BK Park to the throne for sushi. He’s not quite there yet.
Then again, with the closing of Sushi Wabi and the relative stasis of Mirai, no one is. Some are ready to coronate Katsu Imamura at Katsu; others might argue for the Vizconde brothers at Kai Zan. Park himself flew awfully high as chef at the Ukrainian Village’s beloved Arami before suddenly leaving and teaming up with Jason Chan, the restaurateur who launched both Butter and Urban Union. In Juno, the partners have a buzzy yet bland atmosphere in which to take their shot. It feels bleak rather than minimalist, especially with eighties techno music reverberating mercilessly off blank walls.
Far more thought obviously went into the food and drink. Chan amassed an impressive array of sakes and Japanese craft beers, and no one in Chicago seems to be having as much fun with fish as Park. He serves it on boards, spoons, and small grills, in shot glasses and glass bowls of ice with seashells, and trapped under domes filled with smoke. “What BK did at Arami is the tip of the iceberg of what he can do,” says Chan. “At Juno, he has full license to do whatever he wants.”
What Park wants is pretty exciting, nowhere more so than a gorgeous $38 sashimi bouquet arranged with buttery smooth specimens—lean tuna, salmon, yellowtail, amberjack, red snapper, and fatty otoro. The flavors speak quietly but authoritatively. And whether Park plays things straight, as in a superior spicy tuna maki, or gets cute by topping a freshwater eel maki with tamago, tuna, and onion and serving it with a blueberry compote, it’s in service to the ingredients. A clever hand roll comes as a DIY package with sheets of nori, a small cup of lobster and kani (crabmeat), and a blazing mini charcoal grill. You know what to do.
Step away from Juno’s sushi and you’ll find pleasures such as a mellow chawan mushi, a lovely ramekin of golden dashi-spiked custard studded with lobster, kani, and grilled shiitakes. Or try an aggressive sake dashi broth swimming with meaty mussels, clams, pork sausage, and fingerling potatoes—a clambake by way of Osaka. Then again, you’ll also encounter duds like the pork belly ramen, a silly, salty mess of hen egg and overcooked noodles. Usually, I trust servers to guide me, but these are the kind who robotically say everything’s great, which is less helpful than saying nothing.
In fact, Juno’s biggest problem right now is its remote vibe. Echoing the generic environs, the staff is knowledgeable, on the mark, and notably grim. Loosen up, folks: You’ve got a stud in the kitchen. “Everybody knows what I did at Arami,” says Park. “I have the same passion.” If only the rest of Juno did, too.
2 months ago