Hong Kong Café Chic: Chinatown’s newest restaurant boasts an expansive menu and trendy design

Savory Radish Cake (avlxyz/flickr)

Entering Sweet Station, Chinatown Square’s newest Hong Kong café-chic restaurant, is like walking into a sleek, glossy 3-D rendering at a design contest. Complete with private flat-screen TVs beside most booths, custom design elements, and a stylish, young pan-Asian crowd, Sweet Station is the type of place one imagines Quentin Tarantino might have drawn inspiration from when designing Kill Bill’s Asian-candy-wrapper aesthetic set.

Opened in October 2009, Sweet Station is Cantonese restaurateur and amateur graphic designer Kevin Wu’s second restaurant in Chinatown Square. Aesthetically similar to Chi Café, opened three years earlier, Sweet Station offers an expanded menu of Cantonese barbeques, dim sum dishes, and Hong Kong specialties as well as Chinese pastries made in-house.

Wu conceptualized Sweet Station as a bakery-café-restaurant along the lines of trendy places he’d seen on frequent visits to Hong Kong and San Francisco’s Chinatown.

“I saw a lot of great restaurants over there, on the other side, that combined fresh and healthy ingredients with style, and I thought, we need to make one in Chicago’s Chinatown,” Wu said.

The fact that Wu studied graphic design in college, does design consulting work for friends, and runs a construction company alongside his two restaurants comes across in the meticulous matching of the dining room’s design elements, and the way these elements reflect the restaurant’s health-conscious take on traditional Cantonese food.

Wu designed Sweet Station using the aesthetic and colors of the restaurant’s logo. White spirals alluding to the logo’s Chinese sweet cake symbol cover the southern wall, and everything, from the white laminate booths to a double row of granny smith apples bisecting the narrow restaurant’s central booths, use the four colors of the logo.

Sweet Station’s simple, minimalist design was intended to reflect the freshness and health of its items, not a minimalist menu. The shallowness of the open kitchen at the back of the dining room is deceptive: a custom dumbwaiter connects the small, one-stove kitchen to a twenty-chef studio spanning the dining room’s length. Sweet Station’s menu lists over two hundred dishes, not including milk teas, specials, and bakery options. Including Cantonese hot pots and specialties like tea tree mushroom and roasted pork, radish cakes, and ginseng and silkie chicken stew, Sweet Station’s menu is as extensive and exotic as that of another Chinatown staple, Joy Yee’s. The restaurant also serves Americanized Chinese food staples like Crab Rangoon, egg rolls, General Tsao’s and Kung Pao chicken, and unlike Joy Yee’s, includes low-cost dim sum lover’s comfort dishes, like barbecue pork buns, rice noodle wraps, and fish balls.

Wu’s passion for design in no way implies that he puts food on the back burner, so to speak. Prior to opening his own restaurants, Wu worked in the kitchen of upscale Chinese restaurants in Peoria and Naperville, and he continues to work in the kitchen alongside Sweet Station’s head chef, a Hong Kong native. “I like to cook. I like to see good food,” Wu said. And he’s quick to emphasize that design, not cooking, is the hobby.

The food served at Sweet Station is not gourmet, fusion, or cutting edge, but it’s solid, and visitors can expect quality along the lines of upscale chain restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory. Pretty much anything you order at Sweet Station, from Chinatown standards to dim sum dishes to more exotic offerings like fresh lily bulbs and pork stomach, will be light, healthy, and well prepared.

Considering the restaurant’s ambiance and fresh, quality dishes, Sweet Station is a bargain. Traditional noodle, fish, and meat dishes run on the low side of Chinatown prices, and the restaurant also serves cheap bakery and dim sum offerings at all hours. Add to this the fact that it’s one of the few places in Chinatown where fried appetizers don’t leave rings of grease on the dishware, and that it may be the only place where you can fill a Chinese bun craving after 9pm, and Sweet Station is worth repeated visits.
Sweet Station, 2101 S. China Pl. Daily, 6am-2am. (312)842-2228. mysweetstation.com