- Michael Gebert
- Shumai at Fat Rice, harbinger of our future
I was talking to John Manion, chef-owner of La Sirena Clandestina, for this post about the restaurant’s empanadas, and we were discussing what the next hot trend in dining would be, after such past hits as ramen (which still continues to produce new entries, like Shin Thompson’s Furious Spoon, opening on Wednesday), doughnuts, and pork belly. And he said simply, “Everybody’s working on their Mission Chinese.” Mission Chinese is Danny Bowien’s hip Asian food concept, with locations in San Francisco and New York and lines out the door at all times (except when the health department in New York shut it down last year). As soon as Manion said that, I knew he was right—it just made perfect sense. And five minutes after that, I started getting press releases proving it.
Bowien started Mission Chinese to do his own take on cheap Chinese food, because of “his love of the Chinese dives he frequented after his grueling cooking shifts at places like Bar Tartine and Farina,” as SFGate put it. That affection for dives is something he has in common with a pretty healthy majority of restaurant cooks and chefs. They may feed you pork belly topped with foie gras and other fatty decadent treats, but when they eat, they eat an awful lot of Asian food. The healthier ones (Curtis Duffy, Lee Wolen) eat Asian vegetable dishes; at Alinea they order in TAC Quick for staff meal (why do you think Next’s second menu was Thai?); and they all eat and talk about sushi. It’s gone now, but there used to be a late-night, sauna-and-cheap-sushi joint called Paradise Sauna (the sauna still exists but the sushi is gone), and any time a local publication asked a chef where they liked to eat, that was usually the after-shift hangout. (It didn’t hurt that Paradise was in no conceivable way in direct competition with their own restaurant.)
But besides the chefs liking this sort of thing, you and I like it too. We all grew up on Asian takeout of various sorts, and we’ve had no trouble adapting to fusion takes on it. For a long time, many of these were fairly weak—my objection to paying more than cheap-eats prices for Asian food wasn’t because the cuisine didn’t deserve to command such prices, but that if you paid more, you nearly always got less—you got food that was funked down and sugared up for the American palate. But nobody could say that of Fat Rice, with its Portuguese-Macanese fusion food, or Parachute, with its Korean fare pitched somewhere between comfort food and daring dining—these two are the most obvious hits, coming closest to earning the title of Chicago’s equivalent (in quality and hipness) to Momofuku in New York or Mission Chinese in San Francisco.
So we’re about to get a round of new, cheffy, Asian-inspired places, and though they may not all work, enough will to make this a happy trend (and a more varied one than ramen or doughnuts, it seems). Here are a few we know about so far (more will be coming, I’m sure):
• Maddy’s Dumpling House Chrissy Camba had a short-lived upscale Filipino place: Laughing Bird. But as with Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark of Parachute, aiming for high quality at the mid- to low end may be the sweet spot. She’s currently doing pop-ups on different themes; there’s one on Wednesday for Chinese New Year, but it may be sold out by now.
• Packed Speaking of dumplings, who’d have guessed that they’d be Mike Sheerin’s next move after Trenchermen and the too-soon-gone Cicchetti? The form will be Asian, but given his background, the flavors could be anything; he’s still looking for a space, so who knows when it will happen.
• Owen & Engine project Owen & Engine co-owner Bo Fowler will offer dumplings and noodle soups at an as-yet-unnamed brewpub and Asian restaurant in Logan Square, aiming for the fall. (Note the reference to Mission Chinese as an inspiration in the Eater article!)
• Fat Rice expansion And the restaurant we can thank for kicking this off locally is expanding its offerings past its previous expansion into dim sum last summer; its current waiting space will become a cocktail lounge (that was obvious as soon as they started using the space) and they’ll also launch a bakery and evening snack area in another part of the restaurant.
That’s what has been announced since I talked with Manion a few weeks ago. There is no doubt much more to come.