Over the past few years, an influx of Sichuan restaurants has brought the heat (not to mention the numbing peppercorns) to Chicago. We’ve all gotten excited about the dan dan noodles and the hot pots packed with red chiles at places like MCCB in Chinatown Square and A Place by Damao in Bridgeport. In fact, there are so many new Sichuan restaurants that you might overlook a spot like Dongpo Impression, which occupies a modest storefront, if not for the eye-catching red sign out front. But this place is the real deal — one that goes beyond the spicy wallop of Sichuan cooking and explores the regional repertoire with finesse.
Yushiang, or “fish fragrant,” dishes smell nothing like chum and are so named for a folkloric story of a housewife who didn’t want to waste her leftover fish-cooking sauce — a sweet-tangy chile-bean concoction with fistfuls of garlic and ginger. Dongpo’s version ($12.95), served on slivers of pork, is remarkably delicious for its balance and brightness. You will eat the leftovers cold from the container the next day and wipe your finger through it to get every bit: It’s that good. Fish-fragrant eggplant is also on offer, but I had my eye on the dry chile version ($12.50). Crisp and creamy-centered with a flurry of chile flakes, Sichuan peppercorns, and cilantro, this fried eggplant is an object of nightshade desire; it’s best eaten at the restaurant, or in the car, before it loses its crunch.
There is so much more to try: the Heart Breaking Bean Jelly Noodles, whose slippery spice is purported to heal the jilted; Zhong’s dumplings, stained red in their oil and vinegar bath; and, of course, dan dan noodles. There are many ways that Dongpo Impression will have you at hello.