Saturday, February 10, 2018

Favorite Chicago Chinese Food 2017: Tienstin Restaurant

My 2017 top 10 places for Chinese food and boba in Chicago

2) A Bite of Szechuan (RIP)
3) Yu-ton Dumpling House
4) Tientsin Restaurant

5) My Place
6) Town Kitchen (RIP)
7) Hello Jasmine
8) Dolo
9) Phoenix
10) Taipei Cafe & Bambu

Prior to MCCB opening, my favorite place for Chinese food was the Richland basement food court.  It should be no surprise then that a few places from the basement ended up on my 2017 top 10 list: Tientsin Restaurant, Town Kitchen, and Hello Jasmine.  Honorable mentions go to Tienstin Potstickers, Snack Planet, and the original dry hot pot stall.  I'll cover all of the basement places in due time, but first up is Tienstin Restaurant.

Though I typically order from multiple stalls for a single meal, Tienstin Restaurant is the one I order most often from.  Their strengths are their dough-centric items and noodle soups.  Here are the things I like the most from Tienstin.

Beef Rib Tomato Soup

If I had to describe this dish to someone I might describe it "Chinese spaghetti with red sauce," and I don't mean that in a disparaging way.  This bowl of noodle soup is warm and comforting.  The sweet and tangy tomato-based broth, pairs nicely with chunks of braised beef rib.  I like the fact that they leave the cartilage on the meat for some added texture.  Noodles, one of the few dough-based items not made from scratch, come from Korea and have a nice chewiness to them.

Xian Bing

Have I had better xian bing?  Probably.  Have I had better xian bing in Chicago?  No.  Can you even find another place that serves xian bing in Chicago?  I'm not actually too sure.  Is Tientsin's xian bing a little greasy on the inside?  Sometimes.

But really the only question that matters here is: is Tientsin's xian bing tasty and should you order it?  Yes.

This is probably the dish I've ordered most from Tientsin, and I think it's listed as "beef pancake" on the menu.  The texture on the dough has a good resilience to it and crunch from the pan.  The filling is extremely juicy, well-seasoned, and scaldingly hot.  I like to eat this with some black vinegar to balance things out.

Stir Fried Pancake W/ Pork & Cabbage

Much like other things that I enjoy from Tienstin, the star for me in this dish is the dough.  The combination of chewy and crispy is great, plus you get crunchy from the cabbage.  Add in a decent amount of wok hei and you have a winner in my book.

Boiled Dumplings

Tienstin's dumpling game is underrated and overshadowed by Qing Xiang Yuan's popularity.  There's nothing really special about their dumplings, just that they're consistently solid.  Plus, you don't have to hassle with uncomfortable seating, an obnoxious electronic tablet-based menu, and a horrible FOH like you do at Qing Xiang Yuan.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Favorite Chicago Chinese Food 2017: MCCB

My 2017 top 10 places for Chinese food and boba in Chicago

2) A Bite of Szechuan (RIP)
3) Yu-ton Dumpling House
4) Tientsin Restaurant
5) My Place
6) Town Kitchen (RIP)
7) Hello Jasmine
8) Dolo
9) Phoenix
10) Taipei Cafe & Bambu

I’ll admit it: I was jaded when it came to Chicago Chinese food.  Having grown up in the SGV and making regular trips back there after moving to Chicago, the gap in quality was too large to warrant eating Chicago Chinese food on a regular basis.  However, through the help of my wonderful fiancĂ©e cluing me in to the latest restaurant developments in Chicago’s Chinatown over the past few years, my opinion has changed quite a bit.

So why am I resurrecting a long dormant blog when Chicago will never be able to compete with the SGV’s sheer number of options and variety of regional specialists?  Because I truly believe that any of the places on my top 10 list could be dropped into the SGV and hold their own and some could even beat out the local competition.  For the first time, I feel like Chicago Chinese food is finally worth talking about, and I hope to eventually write about most of the places on my list.

I’m sure there are many people who will argue that Chicago Chinese food has been worth talking about since a certain convicted felon opened his popular line of restaurants or even earlier than that.  Perhaps, but that’s another reason why I felt like talking about these places.  More often than not, I disagree with local Chicago food critics, writers, and personalities on Asian food.  Our taste in Asian food is just different, and I want to provide a different perspective so that the overlooked places that I enjoy get more visibility.

Up until last summer, if you asked me where to find the best Chinese food in Chicago, I would’ve said the Richland basement food court without hesitation.  Choose wisely, and you can put together a fantastic spread better than any sit down restaurant in Chinatown.  However, if you were to ask me the same question today, my answer would be MCCB.

The idea behind MCCB is to offer Chinese food executed at a higher standard than what’s typically found in Chicago.  Though the chef is Cantonese, the menu freely roams across China.  As long as you know how to navigate the menu, MCCB delivers on its mission to execute at a high level.

Ingredients are cooked with precision, flavors are impactful, and textures are engaging.  The thing that really makes this place special for me is its ability to consistently execute at this level.  I’ve been to MCCB at least a dozen times since their soft opening last summer, and not once have I encountered an issue with the cookery or seasoning.

Even though I’ve eaten here a lot, there are still a couple areas of the menu I need to explore.  That being said, here’s a short list of some of my favorite things to eat there.

Pig Oil Green Onion Cold Noodle

Noodles tossed in rendered lard and what I’m pretty sure is Maggi, topped with sesame seeds and green onion.  The first time I ordered this, I was slightly disappointed to be honest.  Based on the name, I had hopes that it’d be similar to one of my favorite noodle dishes of all time: onion sauce noodles from Emperor Noodles in the SGV.  Sadly they didn’t share much in common, but the more I dug into the bowl of MCCB's noodles, the more it grew on me.  Now, pig oil noodle is a mandatory order for me every time I go.

MCCB White Soup Beef Maws & Tripes

This dish is a masterclass in showcasing offal.  Swimming in a soul-soothing white pepper broth, each type of offal is perfectly cooked and provides their own unique texture.  Quite possibly one of the best offal dishes I've eaten anywhere.

Whole Fish W/ Chinese Sour PickleWhole Fish W/ Spicy Szechuan Sauce

I personally prefer the pickle version, but they're both good and have nice mala.  In my opinion, the version of these dishes that live under the “Whole Fish” section of the menu are better than the ones under the “MCCB Entry” section.  The ones under "MCCB Entry" are served in a heated vessel which can sometimes lead to the fish being overcooked and the sauce reducing to spiciness levels that I can’t handle.

Traditional Hong Sue Pork

Pork belly braised to perfection.  Each layer of fat melts like butter and the lean is juicy, tender, and well lacquered.

Chengdu Spicy Dumplings

The dumplings and chili sauce aren’t as good as the old A Bite of Szechuan, but they’re still a good rendition.  I much prefer these to the ones at Damao and found those to have a rubbery texture and borderline inedible level of saltiness.  I really don’t get the hype behind Damao as I didn't enjoy anything I ate there.  Maybe they had an off day when I went, but that just reinforces one of the reasons why I think MCCB is the best Chinese restaurant in Chicago: consistency.

Freezing Okra

Chilled okra with soy sauce and wasabi.  Sounds lame and simple, but there’s just something addictive that I can't explain when those 3 things are combined.

Eggplant in Spicy Garlic Sauce

Light, fluffy, and not greasy at all.  You have to eat this while it's scaldingly hot because once it cools down to a certain point, the eggplant can collapse on itself.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

15 Hours In Shanghai - Night

The first stop in my recent trip to Asia was Shanghai.  We originally planned to stay longer, but having relatives in Vietnam meant we had to allot more time to Saigon.  So with only a layover in Shanghai, I really only had one goal: eat dumplings.

We were going to hit up the one-two punch of Yang’s Fry Dumpling and Jia Jia Tong Bao upon arrival for shen jian bao (fried soup dumplings) and xiao long bao (steamed soup dumplings).  However, incorrect hours of operation posted online meant we’d have to postpone the dumpling duet until the next morning.  Instead, we wandered the area around Nanjing Road and had a few bites of street food.


Our first bite of the night was from a busy stand selling Taiwanese fried chicken.  Freshly fried and piping hot, the chicken was served as small bite-sized portions.  It had a great amount of crispy crunch to it that complimented the succulent and juicy meat.  The seasoning was predominately soy, sugar, and five spice.  Assertive and upfront, the soy and sugar smacked you in the face while the five spice mellowed things out nicely on the finish and carried over from one bite to the next.  A definite winner.

A few blocks away we found a Muslim grilled meat vendor.  Muslim grilled lamb kabobs were nice and smoky from the live charcoal they were cooked over.  The smokiness and cumin helped balance the intense muskiness of the fatty lamb, which was probably the gamiest lamb I’ve tasted.

Right next to the grilled meats  was a stinky tofu vendor.  We got the deep fried stinky tofu in chili sauce with green onions and some type of pickle.  I’d only had stinky tofu once before at the 626 Night Market, and that particular stinky tofu was really hard to choke down due to the strong aroma and taste of petting zoo.  This stinky tofu wasn’t nearly as poopy; it was actually very clean tasting (as clean as something that smells like poop can taste).  You could actually taste the bean curd through the lingering barnyard flavor.  The outside of the stinky tofu had a decent amount of bite to it while the inside was silken and scalding.  To add to the searing pain caused by the molten tofu, the chili sauce was some of the spiciest stuff I’ve ever eaten.  It was my first experience with how spiciness in Asia is simply on another level compared to the States.

I’m not 100% sure exactly what it was, but the stinky tofu vendor was selling another dish.  The main ingredient was some type of soft, gelatinous substance.  It was too soft to be wheat gluten or tendon.  My guess is that it was some type of steamed radish cake, as I tasted some sharpness in the mush.  The sauce consisted of ground pork, oyster sauce, sesame oil, fermented black beans (I think), green onion, some type of pickle, and more of that rip roaring chili sauce.  Pretty tasty.

After torching our mouths, we tried putting out the flames with some sugar cane juice and yellow pomegranate juice hand pressed to order.  Both drinks were the best versions of the drink I’ve ever had.  Because the vendor only pressed the sugar cane once through the rollers, the resulting juice was so pristine, not watered down, and paradoxically not overly sweet.  The vendor took the same care when pressing the pomegranate.  She used a deft hand and made sure not to press too hard.  As a result, it was like drinking the juice from the pulp with none of the astringency that comes with the seeds.  It was the essence of pomegranate in a cup.  Due to the cold weather, the juices came out nearly ice cold straight from the press.  Later on in the trip, we had fresh pomegranate juice in Seoul.  The difference between pressing gently to maintain purity and pressing hard to maximize volume was night and day.  The latter was so astringent it tasted like drinking a cup full of  liquefied coins.


To cap off the night, we decided to try some pretty good looking fried pork dumplings from another street vendor.  Big mistake.  They were stale, which made what should’ve been the crunchy parts tough and hard.  The worst part was that they were reheated in a pool of tepid oil, just hot enough to warm them through.  In terms of flavor, it was oil and loads of salt.   Thankfully, this was the only thing we ate in Shanghai that didn’t fall within the very good to unbelievably amazing spectrum of deliciousness.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

2013 Favorites

After recently returning from a trip to Asia and being generally underwhelmed with the food that I ate there, I began thinking about how the food compared to other things I ate in 2013.  Though there were a lot of disappointments in Asia, there were a two things that ranked among the best things I’ve ever eaten.  One savory and one sweet.  Not only were they delicious, but they were cheap too: $1 or less per order.  That got me thinking about what my favorite high end savory and sweet dishes were from 2013 and how they ranked compared to the two cheap eats.

#1: Shen Jian Bao @ Yang’s Fry Dumpling, Shanghai
Shen jian bao: an enormous porky meatball swimming in slightly sweetened soup encased in a paper thin yet toothsome wrapper topped with sesame seeds and green onion.  If that wasn’t enough, one side is fried to perfection with zero greasiness.  Crispy, crunch, chewy, savory, sweet, pungent, solid, and liquid.  I couldn’t ask for anything more.


I’m certain I’ll remember these for the rest of my life, and a small note here can’t do them justice.  I plan on giving them a full write up in the future, and at just 25 cents per dumpling they’re one of the cheapest things I’ve ever eaten in addition to one of the best.

#2: Che Xoi Nuoc @ Che My, Saigon
Che xoi nuoc: glutinous rice balls filled with a coconut-spiked mung bean paste floating in an ethereal sauce of freshly pressed coconut milk and sweetened ginger water topped with toasted peanuts.  The richness of the coconut milk was perfectly cut by the heat of ginger.  The silky chewiness of the glutinous rice balls was graceful and perfectly countered by the crunchiness of the peanuts.  A touch of salt rounded out the 47 cent bowl of che.


It’s perhaps unfair to the other amazing ches and sweet banh I had that che xoi nuoc is my favorite che of all time because there are several that could’ve easily claimed this spot.  All the great desserts I had in Vietnam will just have to share the spotlight in a later post.

#3: Wood-Grilled Ribeye & Foie Gras in Mole Negro @ Topolobampo, Chicago
“Wood-grilled 28-day-aged prime ribeye & seared foie gras in classic Oaxacan black mole (chilhuacle chiles & 28 other ingredients), corn husk-steamed chipil tamal, unctuous black beans, smoky green beans.”  I didn’t understand mole until I had this dish.  There was so much depth of flavor in the perfectly balanced mole that adding aged ribeye and foie gras seemed like gilding the lily.  I would’ve been happy with the dish even if the proteins were swapped out for stale bread.


#4: Young Coconut @ Grace, Chicago
Young coconut, lime, huckleberry, African blue basil: a great flavor combination reminiscent of Southeast Asian flavors that I love.  I’ve always enjoyed Curtis Duffy’s use of herbs in his dishes as it reminds me of the herbaceous Vietnamese food I grew up with.  I also like that he limits the ingredients of a dish and uses a certain ingredient in many different forms.  This makes for dishes that truly capture the essence of an ingredient while being varied enough to make it interesting and not monotonous.


Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Year of Cookies


My 52 week cookie challenge finally came to an end a couple months ago.  Fifty-two weeks and 52 distinct batches of cookies.  The motivation came from wanting to fill the void left by Charcutepalooza's ending, but I wanted something weekly rather than monthly.  The inspiration came from an anecdote in the Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook where Christina Tosi would bake goodies every night after work.

Below are all the cookies I made, starting from the most recent.  I’ve highlighted and included pictures of the cookies that were personal or office favorites.  Many of the flavor combinations were inspired by things I’d enjoyed eating.  Although many of the choices may sound gross or weird, there wasn’t a cookie that was universally reviled.  Most surprisingly, everyone enjoyed the durian cookie.

  • 53 (Bonus Track): Crack Pie cookie.  Inspired by Momofuku Milk Bar.  (above)
  • 52: Mushroom, spruce.  Inspired by Next: The Hunt.
  • 51: Chocolate, spruce, Buddha’s hand
  • 50: Mung bean, pandan, coconut, Maggi.  Inspired by banh tet.
  • 49: Durian, coconut.  Inspired by xoi sau rieng.
  • 48: Soybean, pandan, ginger, coconut.  Inspired by douhua.
  • 47: Popcorn.  Inspired by Coi.
  • 46: Seaweed, longan, corn.  Inspired by che sam bo luong and Ink.
  • 45: Pandan, soybean.  Inspired by soybean milk with pandan.
  • 44: Purple yam
  • 43: Candy cane, chocolate chip
  • 42: Buddha’s hand, chocolate crumb
  • 41: Chocolate, blueberry, peanut, honey.  Inspired by Alinea.
  • 40: Jasmine, coconut.  Inspired by my mom’s jasmine-coconut agar-agar jelly.
  • 39: Oatmeal
  • 38: Maple, schmaltz, fried chicken spices.  Inspired by chicken & waffles.
  • 37: Chocolate, mint, cherries
  • 36: Corn, shrimp.  Inspired by Elizabeth Restaurant.
  • 35: Chocolate chip
  • 34: Corn, cocoa.  Inspired by pozol.
  • 33: Honey, honey powder, honey milk crumb, bee pollen.  Inspired by Eleven Madison Park.
  • 32: Banana, cheese.  Inspired by my mom’s banana wrapped in Kraft singles snack.
  • 31: Corn, cheese.  Inspired by maiz con queso ice cream and Cheetos.
  • 30: Jasmine tea, matcha milk crumb
  • 29: Pea, strawberry, white chocolate.  Inspired by Alinea.
  • 28: Chocolate, raisin, orange
  • 27: Peaches, milk crumb
  • 26: Chocolate, strawberry, peppermint, black pepper
  • 25: Peanut butter, strawberry
  • 24: Hazelnut, chocolate chip
  • 23: Tomato, sumac, olive oil powder
  • 22: Chocolate, chocolate chip, coconut, peppermint
  • 21: Peanut butter, banana, coconut, honey, pandan
  • 20: Strawberry, lavender, pepper, milk crumb
  • 19b: Curry, peanut butter, chocolate chip, coconut
  • 19a: Fermented shrimp paste, Fruity Pebbles, marshmallow.  Inspired by Schwa.
  • 18: Pandan, oatmeal, raisin
  • 17: Peanut butter, celery, olives.  Inspired by DiverXO.
  • 16: Longan, lotus seed, seaweed.  Inspired by che sam bo luong.
  • 15: Chocolate, kumquat
  • 14: Mango, milk crumb
  • 13: Banana, coconut
  • 12: Chocolate, milk crumb
  • 11: Black sesame, miso, sesame crunch.  Inspired by Next: elBulli.
  • 10: Persimmon, milk crumb
  • 9: Corn, coconut, sesame
  • 8: Milk Bar peanut butter
  • 7: Milk Bar compost
  • 6: Milk Bar confetti
  • 5: Milk Bar corn
  • 4: Milk Bar chocolate-chocolate
  • 3: Milk Bar blueberry & cream
  • 2: Milk Bar Fruity Pebble
  • 1: Milk Bar cornflake-chocolate-chip-marshmallow


29: Pea, strawberry, white chocolate.  Inspired by Alinea.


32: Banana, cheese.  Inspired by my mom’s banana wrapped in Kraft singles snack.


46: Seaweed, longan, corn.  Inspired by che sam bo luong and Ink.


48: Soybean, pandan, ginger, coconut.  Inspired by douhua.