CHICAGO CERTAINLY HAS NO SHORTAGE OF CELEBRITY CHEFSÂ with growing restaurant empires. But most of them are Â busyÂ colonizing the North Side. Here on the South Side, celebrityÂ chef Tony Hu is starting to become a household name, at leastÂ in Chinatown, where he just opened his fifth restaurant, LaoÂ You Ju Restaurant and Lounge.
Unlike its four sister eateries–Lao Sze Chuan, LaoÂ Beijing, Lao Hunan, and Lao Shanghai–Lao You Ju does notÂ specialize in the cuisine of a specific region. Instead, theÂ expansive three-room restaurant has an exhaustive selection ofÂ Chinese food, ranging from staples like Sweet and Sour ChickenÂ to Pork Fried Rice to dishes for the more intrepid eater, such asÂ Extremely Spicy Pork Blood Chongqing Style. The drink list,Â although slightly overpriced, featured a goodly-sized selectionÂ of cocktails, beers, and wines mostly from California.
Unlike your typical Chinatown eatery, the dÃ©cor at Lau YouÂ Ju is flashy and upscale. You’ll find shiny lacquer surfaces, crystal chandeliers, large granite countertops, tall boothsÂ upholstered in velvety red fabric, and silverware and dishware monogrammed with the signature Tony Group logo. Even theÂ single-sex bathroom, which resembles a nightclub powder room, is a sight to behold. The lighting is low, and large flatÂ screen TVs beside the bar show both Chinese pop music videos and American sports. Perhaps the only aspect of the restaurantÂ that doesn’t call to mind a lounge in Macau is the music selection: an odd and unfortunate mix of early-2000s pop includingÂ Avril Lavigne, Boys Like Girls, and Train.
Upon arriving at the restaurant at 8pm on a Friday night,Â an eager wait staff served my three dining companions and meÂ hot Jasmine tea and a little dish of potent but addicting candiedÂ ginger peanuts. The ten-page menu, which includes photographsÂ of each dish and a page of photographs of Chef TonyÂ posing with Yao Ming, Bill Clinton, and other recognizableÂ faces, was exhausting to get through. After endless page-flipping,Â we selected seven courses, and in less than five minutes,Â our order began to arrive.Â The duck stewed in a warm spicy broth with starchy babyÂ taro was a highlight, and our party unanimously agreed thatÂ the sweet and savory General Tso’s Chicken was the best weÂ had ever had. The bright green steamed Chinese broccoli wasÂ fresh and flavorful, and the meaty, peppery Thousand Year OldÂ Blackened Duck Eggs are a good way to begin your meal–justÂ don’t ask how they’re made if you don’t like irregular recipes.
Like a lot of Chinese food, many of the dishes could doÂ with less grease and chili oil, which drowned out the other flavors. The Mongolian Beef sautÃ©ed with mushrooms and onions,Â for instance, was fatty and over-cooked. And I had to down several glasses of water before recovering from the chili powderÂ in the Spicy Pork Blood dish. On the other end of the spectrum, the pancakes were completely devoid of flavor and tastedÂ like fluffy hunks of flour mixed with water.
Perhaps the best part of Lao You Ju is the surprisingly lowÂ prices. None of the generous portions we ordered were over twelve dollars and most appetizers were four to five. AlthoughÂ the food is hit-or-miss, the place is perfect if you’re looking for a higher end Chinese dining experience at a low cost. But forÂ guaranteed high-quality Chinese food, your best bet would be to stick with Tony’s originals.
2002 S. Wentworth Ave. 60616Â 11am – 2am dailyÂ (312) 225-7818Â tonygourmetgroup.com