“Hey Tony,” a guy at the bar calls out. “Come over here and touch us since everything you touch turns to gold.”
King Midas is Tony Hu, the unofficial mayor of Chinatown who presides over Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Beijing, Lao Shanghai, and now, Lao You Ju. His loyal subjects support everything he does, but there’s a feeling at Lao You Ju that this is his magnum opus, an ode to new China built with new China energy and new China money. The menu’s manifesto is a jumble of big ideas, including assertions that “NeoChinesism” must “fit in the life course of a man in modern society. Therefore, the accomplishment of NeoChinesism must be grounded on the integration of modernity and the delicacies of Traditional Chinese housing.”
Somehow that translates to the trippiest dining room Chinatown has seen, with spiky-haired Chinese hipsters at the bar, cushy red booths twinkling under green disco dots, and a private dining room stuffed with high-backed velvet chairs. It’s all set to a soundtrack of Rat Pack classics, as well as showings of an NFL game and an Alvin and the Chipmunks movie on mounted flat-screens. Oh, and if you want a $3,000 bottle of Remy Martin, just ask.
And if you want some original Tony Hu creation—that is, creations you can’t get at Hu’s other three restaurants? You’ll need multiple visits to find the diamonds in the rough. Shards of “dragon beef” as thin as saffron strands are supremely crunchy from a dunk in the fryer, but most of their flavor is left behind. Skewered lamb is tender enough, but lacks the punch of the trademark lamb with cumin at Lao Sze Chuan. Takes on the egg are more successful: A trio of warm, soft custards are perfect platforms for three distinctly different toppings of soy-scallion, poached shrimp and minced pork doused in chile oil. And when the egg is presented preserved, it’s quartered and tossed with fiery sesame chile oil and pungent pickled greens.
Unfortunately, the two egg hits are perhaps the most memorable of all I sampled (although the raspberry-sage gin cocktail was tasty, even if I needed a sieve to save my teeth from berry seeds and herbs). Housemade preserved pork (think country ham) presented in a flaming sterno contraption was merely fine, but fishing for a good-sized hunk among the fistfuls of flavorless cauliflower got old quick. And the “healthy stuffed corn bon” touted by two of our three servers (there’s no shortage of staff here) as “very cool in new China” turned out to be a do-it-yourself plate of egg-sized cornmeal cups, tougher and drier than Mexican sopes but similar, which you’re to fill with bland minced pork that’s been stir-fried with institutional-looking diced carrots and peas. There’s no doubt that Hu is exercising his creative ambition with presentation and décor, but if this is new China, I think I’ll return to the old Lao while this one matures with age.
By Heather Shouse.
|Venue name:||Lao You Ju (CLOSED)|
2002 S Wentworth Ave
|Cross street:||Unit 100at Cullerton St|
|Opening hours:||Lunch, dinner|
|Transport:||El stop: Red to Cermak/Chinatown. Bus: 21, 24, 62.|
|Price:||Average small plate: $5|
|Do you own this business?|