Lao You Ju

CHICAGO CERTAINLY HAS NO SHORTAGE OF CELEBRITY CHEFS with growing restaurant empires. But most of them are  busy colonizing the North Side. Here on the South Side, celebrity chef Tony Hu is starting to become a household name, at least in Chinatown, where he just opened his fifth restaurant, Lao You Ju Restaurant and Lounge.

Unlike its four sister eateries–Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Beijing, Lao Hunan, and Lao Shanghai–Lao You Ju does not specialize in the cuisine of a specific region. Instead, the expansive three-room restaurant has an exhaustive selection of Chinese food, ranging from staples like Sweet and Sour Chicken to Pork Fried Rice to dishes for the more intrepid eater, such as Extremely Spicy Pork Blood Chongqing Style. The drink list, although slightly overpriced, featured a goodly-sized selection of cocktails, beers, and wines mostly from California.

Unlike your typical Chinatown eatery, the décor at Lau You Ju is flashy and upscale. You’ll find shiny lacquer surfaces, crystal chandeliers, large granite countertops, tall booths upholstered in velvety red fabric, and silverware and dishware monogrammed with the signature Tony Group logo. Even the single-sex bathroom, which resembles a nightclub powder room, is a sight to behold. The lighting is low, and large flat screen TVs beside the bar show both Chinese pop music videos and American sports. Perhaps the only aspect of the restaurant that doesn’t call to mind a lounge in Macau is the music selection: an odd and unfortunate mix of early-2000s pop including Avril Lavigne, Boys Like Girls, and Train.

Upon arriving at the restaurant at 8pm on a Friday night, an eager wait staff served my three dining companions and me hot Jasmine tea and a little dish of potent but addicting candied ginger peanuts. The ten-page menu, which includes photographs of each dish and a page of photographs of Chef Tony posing with Yao Ming, Bill Clinton, and other recognizable faces, was exhausting to get through. After endless page-flipping, we selected seven courses, and in less than five minutes, our order began to arrive. The duck stewed in a warm spicy broth with starchy baby taro was a highlight, and our party unanimously agreed that the sweet and savory General Tso’s Chicken was the best we had ever had. The bright green steamed Chinese broccoli was fresh and flavorful, and the meaty, peppery Thousand Year Old Blackened Duck Eggs are a good way to begin your meal–just 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 do with less grease and chili oil, which drowned out the other flavors. The Mongolian Beef sautéed with mushrooms and onions, for instance, was fatty and over-cooked. And I had to down several glasses of water before recovering from the chili powder in the Spicy Pork Blood dish. On the other end of the spectrum, the pancakes were completely devoid of flavor and tasted like fluffy hunks of flour mixed with water.

Perhaps the best part of Lao You Ju is the surprisingly low prices. None of the generous portions we ordered were over twelve dollars and most appetizers were four to five. Although 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 for guaranteed high-quality Chinese food, your best bet would be to stick with Tony’s originals.

2002 S. Wentworth Ave. 60616 11am – 2am daily (312) 225-7818 tonygourmetgroup.com