Across the tracks from the Cermak/Chinatown Red Line station, an elderly man wearing a beret bundles up close to his wife’s fur coat as they stroll down Wentworth Avenue. The night air is chilly, but for some reason they stop in front of Lao You Ju.
It’s not clear why they interrupt their moseying at the sight of this Chinese tapas spot. It could be the novelty–well-known restaurateur Tony Hu only added this establishment to his Chinatown empire a couple weeks ago. It could be the modern dÃ©cor–one wall is decked out in red velvet, another displays models of ancient Chinese cooking instruments, and the bar counter seems to be sculpted out of magical fluorescent stone. It could very well be the rapturous aroma that pours out of the place–closing your eyes is all it takes to imagine yourself in front of a Beijing street-food stand on a cold winter night.
My hypothesis, however, is that the couple stops and stares because the place is packed. Lovers huddle around dark-wood tables while families spread out comfortably around circular booths clad in red fabric, but everyone is passing plates, sharing food or stealing it from the plates of their companions. Laughter is the only music that matters in here, and although the couple can’t hear it from outside, they can certainly read it on the patrons’ faces.
As I fiddle with my glossy black chopsticks inside the warmth of the restaurant, I observe the couple resume their promenade. In twenty minutes, they are the fifth set of people I have seen stop to watch. People are drawn to this place from outside, and inside they seem to be drawn closer to each other. It’s no surprise to find out that “Lao You Ju” can be roughly translated as “old friends come together.”
Ingredients get along well here too, as authentic, traditional Chinese flavors marry with attractive, modern presentations. The cumin beef skewer appetizer, for instance, tastes like tradition but looks like art, each one speared into a chunk of cucumber.
At times, the focus on swanky modern ornamentation can be a distraction from the food. The red velvet walls are lined with backlit golden fabric, rococo chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and the tables are set with plates in the shape of waves and tear-drops. But despite its flashy interior design, Lao You Ju’s dishes are tasteful and well prepared. The house-made flat rice noodles are a triumph of tenderness and delicacy, and their slightly irregular shape gives them a nice rustic quality, which contrasts pleasantly with the clean-cut modernity of the restaurant.
Tony Hu is a graduate of a Sichuan Culinary Institute, and the regional influence is apparent, with many of his dishes highlighting garlic, peppercorns and chili peppers. The spicy stir-fried frog legs are a well-executed display of such cuisine. They taste like poultry that thinks it’s seafood and are elevated through the playful addition of French fries, along with the rest of the aforementioned Sichuan staple seasonings.
Twice-cooked pork and whole-steamed fish also stand out thanks to minor details. The pork is adorned with little gems of douchi, fermented black beans that give the dish a salty, bittersweet bite. The fish is daintily garnished with Sichuan peppercorns, which elevate this extremely moist and delicate offering with a spicy, citrusy kick.
After the main plates, the temptation of dessert is too strong to overcome, and so I order a bowl of tangyuan, which the incredibly helpful waitresses explain are balls of glutinous flour boiled in water, rock sugar and spices, and served in their cooking broth. Mine are filled with sesame paste. While these incredibly soft dessert dumplings are an interesting textural experience the flavor is monotonous, but they still add a sweet, traditional ending to the meal.
After I exit the restaurant, I, like the elderly couple, find myself staring in. I see happy people sharing dumplings, sharing life, and I feel that I understand what Lao You Ju is trying to bring together–the past and the present under the sanctity and love of food that is shared.
Lao You Ju, 2002 S. Wentworth Ave. Monday-Sunday, 10:30am-2am. (312)225-7818